AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Committee for Sustainable Conservation Practices Luncheon, May 8, “Linking the environment and heritage conservation: presentations, tips, and discussions” by Braden Allenby, Matt Eckelmann, Jia-sun Tang, Christian Hernandez, Patty Silence, and Eliza Gilligan

This lunch session featured engineers, poetry, and enchiladas.

The session opened with a few remarks from Sarah Nunberg, the chair for the Committee for Sustainable Conservation Practices, thanking all those present for the support she has received in the planning and implementation of this lunch session.

Laura Word of the NEH said a few words about the NEH grant program for Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections and that the intent of this program is to help Museums, Libraries, and Archives to plan and implement preventive conservation measures in sustainable ways.  She encouraged conservators to not only be involved in these projects at the planning phases, but to stay involved throughout the duration of the proposed NEH project.

Braden Allenby, PhD presented ‘Sustainability and Conservation of the Human Past’ He began with a quote from Martin Heidegger, 1977, “So long as we do not, through thinking, experience what is, we can never belong to what will be.” Allenby then laid out the basic ideas of sustainability in 3 parts: environmental, social equality, and economic (and culture should be added) Sustainability and basic political values include egalitarian versus libertarian values, communitarianism and welfare is optimized by individuals being absorbed into community.  However, current U.S. policies include libertarian and corporatism political values so we can see where we have gotten confused.  The big questions like – What is to be sustained? the Earth? Biodiversity? Human life? or Existing economic and power structures?  If the answer is the last, where have we gone wrong?

There is a socio-cultural importance of heritage conservation which is absolutely critical to sustainability, but this is not well-recognized by the heritage conservation community or the sustainability community.

3 levels to sustainability and heritage conservation

1.  Environmental practices (keeping in mind that we do not ask hospitals to kill patients to improve their carbon footprint, it is so important to maintain high levels of professional practice while striving for improvements in environmental practices)

2. Display sustainable practices as part of the preservation of cultural heritage

3. People learn not just from artifacts, but from the context they symbolize and create, and sustainable heritage conservation is a critical, and heretofore overlooked, educational pathway towards a sustainable culture.

Allenby ended with a quote from Goethe, perhaps from this original translation –

Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben der täglich sie erobern muss.

Of freedom and of life he only is deserving

Who every day must conquer them anew.

The next keynote speaker was Matt Eckelman, Phd

Eckelman discussed Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).  He began with examples like the LCA of a cup of coffee (140 liters of water), a sheet of A4 paper (10 liters of water).  The amount of water that is used in the production of everyday materials like a newspaper is sobering, and it is easy to see why LCA is so important to fully understand the environmental impact of the materials we consume in our lives.

Eckelman gave an example of how we can evaluate LCA for the chemicals used in conservation, using toxicity data, and he outlined the limitations of toxicity of chemicals (650 chemicals are tracked by the Toxic Release Inventory, and there are 80,000 chemicals in commerce). For more information see this article by Sousa, et al in Green Chemistry

Each person in America generated nearly 2 pounds of paper waster per day, 93% of original material used in production i the USA becomes wast before the product reaches the consumer, 80% of the remaining 7% goes to waste, making 98% of materials used in the production of new goods.  However, one of the biggest sources of environmental impact in your life is your car so at the grocery store ‘Paper or Plastic’ doesn’t matter as much as how you got there, starting biking to work programs could be a big benefit for the environment.

Eckelman ended by pulling it all back to museums, going to museums to enjoy art is a fairly low environmental impact activity, while art is expensive it is usually small and does not have the same environmental impact as other activities.  Museums can lead the way with sustainable practices that are economically, environmentally, and socially conscious.

Michael Henry lead a discussion, beginning with a statement about the search for an increase in longevity, in our buildings and our collection materials.  Because of multiple climate zones in the USA there are no ‘best practices’ and conservators go right to the object to determine the needs of the object, but to determine sustainable solutions we need to step back.

Braden Allenby warned of using terms associated with social engineering because it could be interpreted as a political and cultural hierarchy, but instead to focus on the economic benefits obtained from adopting sustainable practices.

The luncheon then transitioned into a series of tips sessions from 4 speakers.

Jia-sun Tsang, LEED AP, described a project in the Smithsonian Institution Sustainability Committee that researched materials for the retrofitting of exhibit cases.  The research included fabrication of a micro-chamber to provide zero Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).  Her research showed that bamboo held together with adhesive emitted VOCs from the adhesive, materials that are PVC based also emitted VOCs during testing.  This project is also included in the Smithsonian Environmentally Responsible Exhibits and Displays.

Christian Hernandez gave a presentation of the research for his thesis, which included a discussion of the different terms to describe sustainability and his decision to use the word ‘green’.  He tested many Eco-friendly materials including Ethafoam (in a variety of recycled contents), coroplast, corogreen, corrugated board, multiuse board (archiveart ecophant).  Most of the materials passed his Oddy testing, except the EcopHant, which will be re-tested. These materials were evaluated for a re-housing project at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

Patty Silence from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation presented on how her institution reduced energy costs while maintaining a safe collections environment by focusing on making the room or case work as efficiently as possible. Her tips included – installing shades on western facing windows, correcting thermostats, opening or closing vents, only using a fume hood when needed, installing CO2 monitors so the HVAC is moving air depending on how populated the museum and storage areas are, nighttime setbacks, LED lights and light occupancy sensors. Reducing the amount of light realized significant savings and is better for the collection materials.

Eliza Gilligan presented on a new way to purify water in a lab, using electrodeionization.  She showed her set up which fits on a small cart, and described how electrodeionization works to remove cations and anions from water.  She mentioned that this system has high initial costs, but there is no service contract unlike other fractionaing columns and de-ionization systems.

I enjoyed learning so much during this luncheon, both theoretical ideas and practical applications of sustainable practices in conservation.