• 09.15.09

The California Academy of Sciences Delivers a Sustainable Message With Sustainable Exhibition Design

The popular new San Francisco museum presents a range of environmentally-themed exhibits using environmentally-appropriate exhibit design by local firm Volume.

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With its signature undulating green roof polka-dotted with skylights, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was easily the most heralded museum opening of the past year. Much attention was given to the building’s sustainable features, designed by architect Renzo Piano to achieve Platinum LEED certification. But inside the building, Adam Brodsley and Eric Heiman of Volume Inc., a design firm based in San Francisco, were charged with bringing the museum’s exhibits to life in a massive 20,000 square-foot space, while adhering to the dramatic, ultra-green architectural vision presented by Piano.

California Academy of Sciences

Volume was initially brought onto the project by Hodgetts + Fung, a Los Angeles-based architecture firm who had laid the groundwork for the exhibits’ look and feel. But when Hodgetts + Fung left the project, Brodsley and Heiman were tasked with sourcing many of the museum’s materials and making environmentally-sound decisions, often with a very short timeline. Working closely with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, and Cinnabar, whose Jonathan Katz acted as executive producer for the project (Cinnabar also fabricated the exhibits), the team settled on a modular kit of parts using FSC-certified plywood and steel. For text and images the designers used a direct-to-plywood printing process that saved a step of printing on other substrates or plastic and using excessive adhesives to attach to display panels.

California Academy of Sciences

To ensure that the exhibits could be easily updated, the team created a self-contained, modular system that integrates seamlessly with the architecture. Panels and kiosks can be easily removed, and all signage is on easily-replaceable panels, not painted on walls as is common in most museums. All elements were designed to be free-standing and easily moved, each containing its own electrical, lighting, AV and climate control systems. “We found that there were not a lot of choices in the one-off exhibition realm that are super-sustainable” says Heiman. The choice to have a system that didn’t create excessive waste helped to make up for the lack of options.

The museum’s modularity also allowed the designers to create a unique visitor experience–one that didn’t necessarily follow the traditional linear museum path. Inspired by specimen cases and the cabinet of curiosities popular in the early days of science, the designers created a system that balances both words and imagery, distilling information into manageable snippets, without sacrificing rich content. Using a mix of low-energy LED lightboxes, printed
photographic imagery, video content, interactive displays, and actual
specimens, the designers hoped to captivate their audience on several levels.

California Academy of Sciences

After Brodsley and Heiman observed how museum-goers engage with exhibits, they decided on this solution as a more contemporary approach to how people consume and digest information, providing what the designers called a “2-second, 2-minute or 2-hour” visit. A multi-layered experience also left surprises or uncovered gems to be discovered at a later time, giving visitors a reason to return to the museum again and again. The openness of the exhibits themselves gives visitors opportunities to interact with each other. “You’re also engaging with other people,” says Brodsley. “You’re looking through walls and starting dialogues with people.”

Especially in the climate change exhibition–already a revolutionary topic for a museum to address–the designers felt strongly about avoiding a feeling of gloom and doom. “We wanted to spin it in way that wasn’t purely negative,” says Brodsley. “We wanted information you can take back with you and act upon.” To set the tone when people entered the exhibit, the designers included facts about climate change facing California, but transposed them with pithy New Yorker cartoons about global warming and carbon footprints. The point was not to get people to laugh at climate change, but to show that it was a complicated subject fraught with cultural relevance. “We thought it could provide a gently entry point for people dealing with a very heavy subject,” says Heiman.

California Academy of Sciences

Imagery used in the exhibition also avoided what the designers called “knee-jerk responses” to climate change, like the clichéd image of waves crashing on a boardwalk to show that ocean levels are rising. “We wanted to use images to convey it more abstractly,” says Brodsley. So the designers broke apart beautiful photos of the various topics (oceans rising, melting glaciers, hotter and drier, and extinction), scaled different portions of the image and placed them along a row of exterior windows. “These became these natural daylight-backlit banners, a very different vibe,” says Brodsley.

Elsewhere in the same exhibition the designers had the opportunity to include a participatory element that called visitors into action. The end of the climate change exhibit featured a small wall entitled “Share Your Ideas” where visitors could write ideas for small changes they could make in their own lives after examining the information. Here the designers had another chance to show their commitment to sustainability: The museum provided the designers with paper that had already been printed on, which was cut down to the correct size for the cards.

California Academy of Sciences

When the museum debuted, it was one of the first museums to be built completely green from the bottom-up, making Volume’s design a pioneer for sustainable exhibition design that can be replicated in other institutions. “Like every industry they’re going have to rethink how they do things,” says Heiman. “Our results came from the fact that we don’t work in the industry that often, so we came to it with fresh eyes.”

In the end, the designers were also grateful that the work forced them to examine their choices for other projects they were working on at the same time. Heiman recalls having to choose a paper on which to print the invitations for the professional design organization AIGA’s annual gala. “I remember being super-diligent about all the choices I was making.” says Heiman. “As you work on a project like that, it filters into your everyday life.” After learning so much during the design process–both from the museum’s content and the execution–he was adamant that the invitations be printed on 100% recycled post-consumer stock.

[Photos by Joe Fletcher]


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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.