Our Time on Earth

Putting sustainability messaging into practice

Designing the landmark Our Time on Earth exhibition at the Barbican

What can the arts offer to society’s understanding of the climate emergency? And how might creative disciplines partner with the sciences and humanities to present radical visions for a future in which creatures of all species live in balance with one another and the environment?

This is the premise of Our Time on Earth, a landmark exhibition which opened in May 2022 at London’s Barbican that has been designed by Universal Design Studio. Curated by the Barbican’s Luke Kemp, in conjunction with material specialists Kate Franklin and Caroline Till, the exhibition brings together 18 interactive installations and digital works that open up new perspectives on our biosphere, showing the potential for positive change when different disciplines work together.

“We wanted to present visitors with a different design future – one that feels positive and attainable – and offer a radical alternative for sustainable exhibition design."​ —Lisl du Toit, Associate Design Director

“Our main aim was how we can best showcase the narrative that FranklinTill and Luke Kemp were curating: radical visions for a sustainable future.” Lisl du Toit

Given the exhibition’s subject matter, it was imperative that Universal’s design for Our Time on Earth fully embody its message of ecological stewardship, without simply falling back on recycled materials, the concept and aesthetics of which people are already familiar with. It is important that visitors to the exhibition leave feeling inspired by the possibility of futures in which society uses materials more responsibly, as well as excited by their potential to make a substantive difference to our environment.

The design team’s approach to the space was guided by the work of economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, whose theory of radical abundance rejects the artificial scarcity driving contemporary economies. Instead, Hickel argues that degrowth and the socially responsible deployment of resources can create a more equitable, environmentally balanced future in which everyone is provided for. Led by Hickel’s thinking, Universal undertook a research programme focused on designers and companies working with existing natural materials in a more resourceful manner than previously seen within the field.

As part of this process, the designers embraced seasonality within material production, with consideration given to the growing cycles of different materials and their susceptibility to weather patterns potentially determining availability.

Linking much of the research was a belief that responsible material stewardship can bring about both social and environmental benefits. Many of the materials considered, such as hemp or corn husk, employ small-scale regenerative farming methods that carry benefits for biodiversity, soil health and the communities that farm them alike.

Given that the majority of exhibits within the show are digital, the team developed a display that would provide a contrasting focus on materiality and tactility. This display prioritises undulating, organic forms, utilising materials whose natural origins are immediately clear to visitors.

Guided by these principles, the team developed a modular plywood framework that can support video screens on both sides, while also lending itself to the creation of organic shapes to guide people through the exhibition. Each frame is subsequently clad in a natural material that corresponds to the themes of Our Time on Earth. Across the show, different materials have been employed within this framework, ranging from recycled cork; corrugated panels made from hemp fibres grown on Cambridgeshire’s Margent Farm; cellulose panels created from reclaimed paper pulp by Barcelona’s Honext; and PineSkins, a leather-like material designed by the Latvian designer Sarmite Polakova, created using the inner bark of pine trees that is a byproduct of the forestry industry. Each material is renewable and also encapsulates a “nose to tail” approach to design: making the most of the materials that are available and minimising waste in production.

Complementing the frames are a series of hemp and felted wool curtains, which serve to softly delineate discrete areas within the exhibition without taking up additional floor space. Together, the curtains and frames create a flexible, adjustable configuration of freestanding straight screens, gentle curves, and smaller, more intimate spaces that can easily accommodate the diversity of the exhibition’s content. The display can also quickly adapt to any changes in programming or relocation to different spaces over the course of Our Time on Earth’s lifespan.

Throughout the exhibition's development, the designers were led by a principle of less, but better. Working within the exhibition’s budget, the team analysed which elements of its design were essential to the show’s concept, opting to remove anything that fell outside of budget rather than replace it with cheaper, but less ecologically sound materials. All of the materials for the design have been sourced from within Europe and are variously recyclable, reusable or biodegradable at the end of the exhibition’s lifespan. Our Time on Earth is planned as a travelling show, and its design elements have accordingly been selected so as to be lightweight, durable and stable during transportation. It is built from natural design elements that can last for an extended period and follow the exhibition throughout its entire journey.

“Our biggest impact with a project like this is to complement the exhibition by showcasing sustainable design. Our key learning from this process has been to recognise that there are already materials out there that were perhaps used in the past and have since fallen from favour, but which we can look at again. These are beautiful, versatile, optimistic materials and, vitally, they’re already available to us.”Lisl du Toit