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Greening Up Conservation Science

My pedestrian Photoshop attempt to give an Egyptian sculpture a greener feel. With apologies to Amenhotep III and thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

Cultural heritage is important so valuable art and artifacts should be protected at any cost, right?

Not so, says May Cassar, the director of the Center for Sustainable Heritage at University College London.

Most museum, galleries and archives take it as a given that air conditioning and pollution filtration are a must for keeping valuable collections in comfortable living conditions, she says.

“But air conditioning and particularly pollution filtration come at a very high cost–not only to institutional budgets but also from an environmental point of view” because fossil fuels are consumed to drive these systems, Cassar explains. “To me it is a double standard to damage the environment outside but protect the environment inside for collections.”

She’s trying to encourage people in cultural conservation careers to consider the environment outside–and not just around valuable collections.

So for example, Cassar advocates that museums in temperate climates–such as the UK–accept some minor risks to collections if there is a possible gain for the environment. For example, a museum might normally use air conditioning to keep humidity in between 50-60%. If the building’s internal humidity would normally only ever range from 40-65%, reaching the outer extremes only rarely, it could be fine for the museum to eschew humidity control without substantially increasing risk to the collection, she says.

Of course, it’s true that some museums don’t have the luxury of a temperate climate… Consider the soul-destroying humidity of Washington DC’s summer months (I barely survived two of them), or the corrosion potential from the high salt concentrations found in the air around ocean-side museums, or the problem New York City’s sooty air pollution raises for valuable collections.

But there may be other ways for museum, archive and gallery staff to go green.

To name a few: Conservation scientists are evaluating whether enzymes can be used instead of solvents to extract adhesives during textile conservation. Researchers are looking for paint and varnish removers that don’t contain dichloromethane, which isn’t entirely awesome to inhale. They are also investigating low-energy museum lighting options and possible non-pesticide ways to control insect invasion of wood and textile artifacts (such as brief exposures to sunlight).

One of the stumbling blocks to getting conservators on-board with environmentally friendly alternatives is that they are unwilling to give up tried-and-true methods for riskier ones, especially on objects of great cultural value.

“Although in theory using green chemistry should produce better results for the environment, we don’t know whether it produces as equally good results for collections,” Cassar says. But doing the science to find out “is a risk worth taking,” she adds.

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