Sustainability in Conservation: Saving Our Heritage and Our Planet

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Used disposable nitrile gloves produce massive amounts of waste, which end up in landfills or incinerators. Image courtesy of Sustainability in Conservation

By Caitlin Southwick

It all started with gloves.

I have always considered myself to be a person who cares about the environment. I recycle. I try to reduce my waste production. I am aware of my carbon footprint. But this was in my personal life. I never considered my impact in my professional capacity.

While I was a student at Cardiff University, I walked by the trash can one day in the lab and saw that it was half full with gloves. Disposable nitrile gloves are commonly used in conservation practice to protect objects and to protect the conservator. Many discussions have been had about the applicability of gloves, the reusability, and the effectiveness. But I wondered if anyone had thought about the waste?

I thought that these must be recyclable, but it turns out nitrile gloves are not easily recycled. I started thinking about ways to mitigate this. The first thing I googled was “Sustainability in Conservation.” I wanted to see if there was some kind of resource where I could find sustainable solutions for conservation problems. But I had no luck.

I delved into other fields to see how they handled the glove issue. I found existing recycling programs for gloves as well as biodegradable alternatives (for all options, see: https://www.sustainabilityinconservation.com/gloves), but the effort it took for me to discover these options was much more involved than I think most professionals would have time for. I realized there was a need for a network where conservators could easily access such information—where they could share ideas and find answers.

Students rarely feel they have any say in the larger scheme of things. To empower students and draw attention to the issue of sustainability, I started Students for Sustainability in Conservation (SSiC). SSiC started as a Facebook group connecting students from around the world to share ideas and tips about how they practice sustainability in their labs. In 3 months I had about 400 followers, but I was the only one posting anything. I realized that there was not only a need to create a network for raising and discussing questions, but also a need for a resource center where answers could be easily found and inspiration created.

I started recruiting people to help me—researchers who would be available to answer questions and collect information. I presented SSiC for the first time at the ICOM-CC Glass and Ceramics Interim conference in Wroclaw in 2016. After my presentation, I was approached by a colleague who complimented me on the initiative but told me that, while this initiative was good for students, there was a real need for this on the larger professional level too. So, I dropped the first S and we became SiC, Sustainability in Conservation.

Since its inauguration, SiC has grown exponentially. Building awareness through conferences, social media, a monthly newsletter, and by word of mouth, SiC has successfully demonstrated how sustainability can be linked to conservation. SiC is a one-stop shop for all things sustainable—providing resources, information, and programs. The network SiC has created allows conservators to address issues regarding environmental impact in real time, discovering solutions and relevant research.

SiC inspires conservators to be more creative in finding environmentally responsible solutions to conservation problems and also empowers conservators to find ways to be sustainable in everyday practice. SiC unifies researchers from all over the globe to streamline the development of sustainable treatments and methodologies. Various programs and platforms from SiC facilitate this evolution. The members-only forum allows conservators to access reliable information and provides a safe place to ask questions and begin discussions.

SiC has brought together an incredible team of dedicated conservators. SiC is currently comprised of 20 volunteers in different capacities, all bringing unique perspectives and passions to the group. Some members have joined with specific projects or ideas in mind, while others have approached SiC, wanting to get involved, but not specifically in one area. Sarah Braun (SustainEdge Marketing), worked as a consultant at UNESCO to help develop the Sustainable Tourism Toolkit. She approached SiC with the idea to adapt that model to museums, laboratories, and on-site conservation work. The SiC Sustainability Toolkit was released at a workshop at the AIC General Meeting last month (May 2019) and can be found in the Member’s section of our website.

Julia Wagner (University of Amsterdam) joined SiC in 2017. She worked as a general team member, helping with various tasks until it was suggested that SiC have a newsletter. Julia happily raised her hand, volunteering to take on the new challenge and continues to manage the newsletter herself—Julia found the platform for distribution, creates the content, and ensures distribution every month. Since joining Julia has also become involved with the Student Ambassador Program and started Tips and Tricks.

The Student Ambassador Program (SAP) was an initiative that stemmed from my experience at Cardiff University, where a student (or team) is appointed every year to monitor the sustainable initiatives in the conservation labs and to promote environmentally friendly habits. This model was adapted by SiC to create an international network of students and universities to participate in sustainable models. When the SAP launched, Estelle De Bruyn (KIK-IRPA) took over. Estelle took a systematic approach to incorporating existing sustainability models at universities and turned these proposals into a step-by-step guide. This guide demonstrates that small changes make big differences, and it aims to further inspire students to find and share their own ideas.

One of the most exciting topics today related to environmental sustainability in conservation is green chemistry. Cleaning is a major focus in conservation and is also one of the most toxic aspects for the conservator and the environment. Taking inspiration from the pharmaceutical and chemistry fields, Mariana Escamilla Martinez (Cologne University of Applied Sciences) and Bianca Gonçalves (independent paintings conservator, Museu de Arte de São Paulo), have teamed up to head the gels and green solvents projects which explore alternatives based on green chemistry and reduction of free solvent use. The team provides resources outlining what green solvents and gels are and how to use them. They are creating handbooks which will provide information and educate conservators about these topics, encouraging more research and a streamlined approach to the implementation of these alternative treatments in everyday conservation.

A key goal of the SiC team was to create a resource for all things sustainable in conservation. Zoë Bedford (University of Amsterdam) and Francesca Cardinali (private conservator) manage the SiC website, which is the central point of reference for conservators internationally. The website has information on original SiC programs as well as information from other sectors and professional fields. Inspiration comes from chemistry, built heritage, universities, and any field tackling the issue. The creation of a network is key. SiC partners with, and highlights, other organizations within cultural heritage which are also engaging in sustainability. Links to other relevant sites, such as the AIC Sustainability Committee or the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, showcase a wide range of sustainability activities in the larger cultural heritage context.

There are many exciting and innovative research projects currently being developed around the world. However, many of these projects are not well known. SiC hopes that by creating a platform for sharing information in real time and encouraging more collaborations, professionals can obtain access to these types of research and information. By successfully engaging in social media platforms, information can be distributed around the globe electronically. Ideas and tips, research projects, and innovations can be accessed by the global community instantaneously, fast-tracking the movement toward sustainable thinking and treatments. Mariana Di Giacomo (University of Delaware) created the SiC Twitter account, which highlights the various aspects of SiC and creates engagement. Bianca Gonçalves runs the creative SiC Instagram account, and Ariana McSweeney (Mount Auburn Cemetery) manages the SiC Facebook group along with overall administration of the SiC team.

The passion of the SiC team is what makes it so successful. The professionals who work with SiC every day make it the success it has become. Each member brings a level of integrity and innovation to the group, and the continued growth of SiC and interest in the possibilities ensures that we can contribute to a more sustainable future. The concept of sustainability is no longer intangible, and the transition to a more environmentally conscientious profession is palpable. The desire expressed by conservators to be more sustainable highlights the inherent duality of our profession: conserving our cultural heritage and our planet. The excitement around sustainability—the engagement and actions—demonstrate the possibility we have in the cultural heritage sector to lead the way in this movement.

We invite you to check out our website and follow us on social media: https://www.sustainabilityinconservation.com/ @SiConserve

For more information about SiC or to get involved, contact us at: sustainabilityinconservation@gmail.com

AUTHOR BYLINE

Caitlin Southwick is a graduate of the University of Amsterdam Conservation and Restoration Program, specializing in stone conservation. She is the founder/executive director of SiC as well as the coordinator of the ICOM Working Group on Sustainability and a professional member of the AIC Sustainability Committee. She is currently working at the Vatican Museums in the Marble and Casts Restoration Laboratory.

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It all started with gloves. I have always considered myself to be a person who cares about the environment. I recycle. I try to reduce my waste production. I am aware of my carbon footprint. But this was in my personal life. I never considered my impact in my professional capacity.
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