AIC's 41st Annual Meeting, Committee on Sustainable Conservation Practice, Sustainability Luncheon: Linking the Environment and Heritage Conservation 2013: Presentation, Tips and Discussion

The Sustainability luncheon consisted of two parts: a progress report about a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) project that quantitatively evaluated the environmental impacts of three aspects of loans and exhibitions, and a breakout session where the participants brainstormed ideas that lessen the environmental effects disclosed by the LCAs.
 LCA is a tool that quantitatively defines the environmental and economic impact of the activities being examined.  These LCAs explored three aspects of loans and exhibitions including: energy use due to museum standards for relative humidity and temperature, materials and energy use related to loans and exhibitions, and the life cycle of halogens compared to LEDs.
The session introduction emphasized the connection between sustaining our environment and preserving our cultural heritage for future generations, focusing on the link between environmental and heritage conservation. The introduction outlined the collaboration between AIC, conservators, and other museum staff at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Dr. Mathew Eckelman and his Northeastern University environmental engineering students. The students’ findings were useful and provided a basis for future LCAs.
Breakout Session Challenge Questions and Discussion:
1. What means would you use to distribute/publicize LCA findings?
The importance of bringing the LCA results to all levels of the museum, especially the director, building manager, and board, was discussed. Cost-figures and a list of changes would show how these results can be implemented. The presentation of data is important. Dissemination through peer-to-peer avenues such as staff meetings, retreats, or breakout sessions such as this one may result in people wanting to be more sustainable, rather than feeling forced to do so. Information should be presented in an empowering way that supports personal responsibility.
A professor of conservation encouraged the inclusion of sustainability in the conservation curriculum, similar to the inclusion of conservation ethics. If it is practiced in the classroom, it may become second nature. This approach would preemptively address changing habits, since these students will begin their conservation careers with sustainability in mind and not have to be convinced about its value later.
A two-pronged approach was discussed that involved providing information to staff and outreach to visitors. Ideas about outreach included: distribution via social media sites, distlists, publications, webinars, allied professional groups such as American Association of Museums, and senior museum staff. The application for funding to implement sustainable changes could be advertised to the public and local media as a form of outreach.
2. How would you implement some of the LCA findings?
The implementation of HVAC findings needs to involve non-conservation staff in the pre-planning stages. Potential impacts to the collections should be thoroughly investigated and estimated ahead of time, before periodic shutdown or “coasting” of the system takes place. Regarding the adoption of LEDs, it might be better to wait until the technology improves and becomes more reliable and affordable since they will likely become the norm.
3. The loans and exhibitions identified couriers and plastic vitrines as the least sustainable aspects. Could you identify ways to reduce your institution’s carbon footprint from both? Would your institution accept this challenge?
While conservation as a profession has been a strong advocate for couriers, the role of couriers may need to be re-examined. Colleagues at the borrowing institution or from lending institutions contributing to the same exhibition could be identified to oversee the installation and de-installation of other institutions’ artifacts. There could be a crossover of conservators from different specialties (e.g., paper and textile conservators) to transport, install, and de-install objects similar to but outside their specialty. If items are being transported in sealed packages, it is possible that a courier is not needed. Staff from the borrowing institution or a locally-contracted stand-in could install/de-install the objects.
The possibility of cutting out the courier’s role altogether was raised. While this could work for some scenarios, it might be impossible in other instances for insurance purposes and for the occasional special needs of an artifact. The hiring of a local stand-in at the destination institution to courier the item from the shipper was discussed. Many participants were concerned about safety and security issues. Various questions arose regarding the role of the courier, stewardship responsibilities, and costs. What role does a courier actually play in the safety of an item as it is being shipped? Also, could the availability of equivalent services at the destination institution ascertained? What if there are no local conservators or other appropriate professionals who can perform the role?
Ideas about vitrines were first to re-use them when possible, and recycle when not possible.
For libraries and archives, mats and frames are often of standard sizes, making packing for a loan easier than for three-dimensional objects. Re-using a crate is easier if the materials packed into it will usually be the same shape and size.
4. What about your institution enables sustainability or holds it back?
New ideas, methodologies, and technologies must be thoroughly researched and followed-up upon. There are no “plug-in” fixes and administrators need to know this upfront to avoid unrealistic expectations. Quantitative presentations tend to be more effective. Engaging the expertise of a neutral third-party expert can sometimes be more persuasive than an internal presentation. New projects must be matched to administrative values. Intentions and presentations should be oriented to these as well.