Blockbuster exhibitions: how France is organising to tackle their mammoth environmental footprint

On the website of the Rijksmuseum, the blockbuster exhibition on Johannes Vermeer (10 February – 4 June 2023) is branded “the largest exhibition ever”. However, visitors’ hopes are soon dashed by a note informing them the show is sold out. “All of Vermeer’s works can still be admired via the online discovery tour,” the homepage volunteers.

Often monographic, blockbuster exhibitions typically bring together a single artist’s iconic works, achieving record attendance thanks to a new value proposition. They are spectacular exhibitions with flamboyant scenographies that target mainly occasional visitors.

In terms of attendance, they represent an undeniable success. In France, the last exhibition of this type at the Musée d’Orsay, which ended on 22 January (Munch: A Poem of Life, Love and Death) broke the institution’s attendance record with 720,000 visitors in four months. Some other French blockbuster examples are Tutankhamun, the Pharaoh’s Treasure at the Grande Halle de la Villette with 1.4 million visitors in 2019; Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre: 1.1 million visitors in 2020; The Morozov Collection: Icons of Modern Art at the Fondation Louis Vuitton: 1.2 million visitors in 2022.

Aside from France and the Netherlands, other famous European museums are also marketing their temporary exhibitions as “once in a lifetime” events. Take the recent Donatello: The Renaissance in Florence in 2022 at Palazzo Strozzi, bringing together around 130 works from 60 locations from all over the world, or the Tate London exhibition Cezanne presented as an “once-in-a-generation exhibition”.

Successful attendance but environmental failure

The problem is that this type of exhibition comes with a hefty environmental bill. Elsa Boromée, a Corporate Social Responsibility manager at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, reckons her institution’s temporary exhibition on bear species in 2017 consumed the water of 454 Olympic swimming pools, the annual energy of 23 French households and emitted the greenhouse gases of 74 round trips by plane from Paris to Marseille.

Such figures are pushing cultural industry players to review their business model by integrating exhibitions’ environmental footprint, as professional clusters emerge to instigate change. The Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille, for example, has spent the past two years organising workshops on the topic of museum sustainability.

Initiate a sustainable development process

Poring over the speeches of 54 professionals who took part in a workshop on museum sustainability in Lille, January 2022, we found there is a broad consensus in France on the need for greener exhibitions. To this end, the group recommended curators rethink the very concept of the temporary exhibition and its life cycle, which spans pre-design, exhibition and dismantling times.

This entails reconsidering traditional notions of aesthetic and scientific excellence. Exhibitions are currently ranked according to the volume of original artworks on display, with a typical show featuring between 100 to 150 pieces. It was also advised that different museum departments involved in the preparation of the exhibition consult each other over eco-friendly alternatives, including digital projection of original artworks, sustainable scenography and lighting.

Moreover, museums will also have to contend with the challenge of reusing as many elements of the scenography as possible, or/and of recycling them with institutions working in the creative sector. Choosing local alternatives for donating exhibition furniture (e.g., art schools, NGOs) could also help cap transport-related emissions.

Deeply rooted preconceptions

The exhibition phase is the moment when the public encounters the exhibition’s narrative. And here we come up against another paradox: visitors we interviewed perceived an eco-designed exhibition as “greenwashing” and of poor aesthetic quality. One visitor observed:

“An exhibition with an ‘ecological’ label… I’d be suspicious, I’d consider it ‘greenwashing’ it’s just for marketing.”

This verbatim illustrates the feelings of visitors interviewed six months before the installation of the eco-designed exhibition The Goya Experience at the Palais des Beaux-arts in Lille. It raises questions about visitors’ ability to sacrifice their aesthetic pleasure for the common good. To some extent, this can be explained by the general public’s lack of knowledge about the behind-the-scenes work involved in putting on an exhibition. For example, when respondents were asked about the number of works expected for a temporary exhibition, they mentioned a maximum of 40. There is therefore a discrepancy between the aesthetic ambitions of the curators and the expectations of visitors.

More broadly, visitors don’t tend to perceive sustainability as a priority for museums, in contrast to other industries:

“I think it’s a bit sad to ask the question of reducing the carbon footprint when it comes to culture when there are many other sectors that are worse examples. I don’t think that culture is a sector where we should be making savings. […] Culture is not the sector where the ecological balance is the heaviest.”

However, the public and their movements represent the largest impact in the carbon footprint of a temporary exhibition.

“The Goya Experience” at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille

It is essential cultural institutions educate visitors on their sustainable choices. The Palais des Beaux-arts in Lille, for example, chose to clearly brand the “Goya Experience” as its first “eco-conceived” exhibition. In an extensive information campaign, it trumpeted the ecological value of centring its exhibition around two works belonging to to the museum, The Old Ones and The Young Ones. Out of the 40 works on display, all came from Europe, and only two were ferried over by plane. 65% of the set design was reused for the following exhibition, The Magic Forest.

The feedback from visitors was particularly positive:

“I was very surprised by the tour, the set design foregrounding the creation process behind the two works, the evolution of Goya’s painting, as well as the final highlight of the two paintings of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille. The rhythmic and grave music helps us to immerse ourselves in Goya’s dark world.”

Technology and digital reproductions helped to replace the missing original pieces in the scientific narrative of the exhibition tour.

Visitors interviewed at the exit of the exhibition said they appreciated the exhibition’s multimedia dimension:

“I was taken aback by the [exhibition’s] various screenings, musical atmospheres, lighting as well as its completely digitalized gallery. I believe the set design is crucial for this [artistic] experience – yes, the exhibition ‘Goya Experience’ lives up to its name.”

Launched on 22 March, the Natural History Museum’s Félins (“Felines”) exhibition has followed the same eco-design approach, according to its curator, Mathilde Chikitou, and set designer, Sacha Mitrofanoff. Be it the floor, furniture, display cases or partitions, the lifecycle of every item has been thoroughly assessed, from the sourcing of their raw materials to their potential to be reused or recycled. The works on display are mainly sourced from Parisian collections.

The examples above are proof there needn’t be any trade-offs between sustainable exhibitions and spectacular crowd-pleasers. To help professionals slash their show’s carbon footprint, the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) has produced a special toolkit on environmental sustainability in the museum practice. Awaiting full-blown eco-conceived shows, there are simple and immediate steps can museums take to help the planet, including extending the duration of the exhibition, privileging its tour within the country, calculating its impact throughout its life cycle, and working with certified suppliers.

Guergana Guintcheva has received research funding from the city of Lille.