Museum boasts of new holistic focus on sustainability

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - A new OMSI exhibit teaches visitors how to properly recycle. 
A lot of eyes and ears and thinkers and doers go through the doors of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry each day, week, month and year.

In their own way, the folks at OMSI believe they can influence people, and that’s the emphasis behind their new permanent exhibit on sustainability: “Clever Together: Our Everyday Choices/Juntos Somos Ingeniosos: Una Decisión a la Vez.”

Opened in early October at the Southeast Portland museum on 1945 S.E. Water Ave., the bilingual exhibit includes interactive displays, art work, games and examples of wasted energy use. Approximately 30,000 people toured the exhibit in the first month.

The exhibit was conceived and built over the past three years, largely from recycled materials. Graphic informational placards were made of plywood rather than plastic. Art work was made of discarded items or scrap, a la mixed-media artistry.

“One of the goals of this exhibit is to give people a framework to think about how to make more sustainable choices,” says Kari Jensen, OMSI senior exhibit developer. The theme is asking people to think about the social, economic and environmental impacts of their daily decisions.

A kitchen/living area exhibit examines the different ways in which an ordinary habit — opening the fridge door before thinking about what to eat, or leaving the TV on when it’s not being watched — adds up to deter conservation.

A recycling sorting bin exhibit breaks down the oft-complicated decision of where to put what.

A pinball game — mechanically-driven, without electricity — allows the player to spring the pins and smack the ball in the direction of scoring buttons, all of which have been highlighted by ways to prevent food waste: Plan menus, buy less, share, store, eat leftovers and freeze.

“It inspired me to make a lot of better decisions in my personal life,” says Jensen, noting that 40 percent of food grown in the United States gets discarded.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - A family views an OMSI living area/kitchen that shows the many ways Americans waste energy in their homes. 
The whole family can take part in the “building blocks” of sustainability, constructing the social, economic and environment pillars with (environmentally friendly) foam blocks.

A “human power” display shows people the benefits of bicycling and walking. Public transportation is also highlighted, with first-hand accounts of the benefits of not driving your own car.

An informational kiosk presents the benefits of saving home energy, reusing materials, sustainable transportation, community gardens, farmers markets, arts and culture and lending libraries.

“It helps to have more people thinking about every single thing we do in a more holistic way,” Jensen says. “Not only, ‘How can I purchase an item that has the lowest carbon footprint,’ but also, ‘How can I purchase an item that’s from my community, that’s best for me, best for the environment, and what’s affordable.’ “

To broaden access to the exhibit, everything is displayed in Spanish.

“We know it’s a quickly growing demographic in our area,” Jensen says. “If we have content delivered in English and Spanish, it allows for multi-generational experiences, where Grandma can be talking to the children, and they’re both learning about the same information in the way that’s easiest and most accessible to them.”

The sustainability exhibit inhabits OMSI’s Earth Science Hall, which previously housed such things as dinosaur and “Lost Egypt” exhibits. Starting in January, a renewable energy exhibit will be added, furthering the museum’s sustainability push. Both exhibits are meant to be “permanent,” in museum parlance meaning at least eight years. That’s quite a commitment by OMSI.

“We have a holistic focus on sustainability, really,” says Chris Stockner, OMSI energy and the environment coordinator.

“Our aim is to inspire people to consider their own decisions and prompt them into action. Whether the choice is to start riding a bike to school or work, buy local, share items with our neighbors, take shorter showers, or reduce wasted food in our homes — any of these things moves us toward a healthier community.”

The “Clever Together” exhibit was constructed by OMSI in partnership with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Metro, Verde, Portland Community College and the Coalition for a Livable Future, and funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

OMSI will share its initiative with four other museums — Franklin Institute (Philadelphia), Miami Science Museum, Science Museum of Minnesota and Children’s Museum of Houston — through workshops starting in the spring.

OMSI talks the talk, walks the walk

OMSI has been doing its part.

In recent years it has redoubled efforts to make its own operations more sustainable by conserving energy, lowering water usage and promoting recycling, repackaging and waste reduction at its huge building.

The museum has shaved its electricity use by 700,000 kilowatt-hours a year over the past five years, enough to power 60 households a year. It now uses 5.1 million kilowatt-hours a year.

Through recycling and composting, OMSI has reduced the waste it sends to the landfill by more than 30 tons a year — four garbage trucks' full. It now sends 68 metric tons a year to the landfill.

"We've had an active composting program, but we're looking to do more," says Chris Stockner, OMSI energy and the environment coordinator.

OMSI has set a goal of cutting water usage in half in the next few years.

The museum installed advanced heating and cooling in its building, with "chillers" on such things as the Omnimax theater to cool the projector bulb. Energy-efficient lighting has been installed in several places, including the planetarium's hallway.

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