JULIAN BICKERSTETH is managing director of InternationalConservation Services in Sydney. He is director of communicationsof the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) and was part of the working group that formulated the IIC and ICOM-CC (International Council of Museums—Committee for Conservation) 2014 Declaration on Environmental Guidelines1 for museums and collecting institutions.
LUKASZ BRATASZ is head of the Sustainable Conservation Laboratory at Yale's Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage and a research fellow at the Jerzy Haber Institute of Catalysis and Surface Chemistry in Kraków. Earlier in his career, he was a head of the Laboratory of Analysis and Non-Destructive Testing of Artefacts in the National Museum in Kraków.
JANE HENDERSON is a reader in conservation at Cardiff University's School of History, Archaeology and Religion. She serves on the editorial panel of the Journal of the Institute of Conservation and on the ICOM-CC preventive conservation working group, and was coeditor of the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation special edition on collection care.
They spoke with JOEL TAYLOR, a senior project specialist with the GCI Collections department, and JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.
JEFFREY LEVIN The 2014 joint declaration of the IIC and ICOM-CC addressed sustainability in the context of collection environments. What does the term "sustainability" mean to each of you?
JULIAN BICKERSTETH I have always liked the Brundtland2 definition as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. I say that because we have to think globally before we think locally. I was born into a world where there were 2.9 billion people, and now there are 7.6 billion. In the 1960s there was a famous book by Paul Ehrlich called The Population Bomb, which said by the 1970s we'd have widespread famine because we can't feed this number of people. Well, here we are with well over twice that. So, I remain optimistic that we will achieve a sustainable future in some way.
JANE HENDERSON I tend to work with the social, economic, and environmental definition of sustainability, which says you have to think of all three issues together. And I consider culture to be part of the social. My optimism lies on the environmental side of the sustainability bottom line. My pessimism lies in the economic and social sides of it—economic from external forces and the social in conservation. We don't really address that in a convincing way.
LUKASZ BRATASZ I don't think sustainability is a solution or even a goal. Rather it's the process of negotiating and renegotiating activities with consequences. It's this negotiating and balancing between our actions and their consequences that is the heart of sustainability at all levels—economic or environmental. Speaking about heritage, our actions in preservation can have negative consequences, and we need to identify and balance different needs.
LEVIN It's been about four years since the 2014 declaration. What obstacles remain to developing more sustainable practices?
HENDERSON In my experience, the obstacles are always economic. We are in the grip of massive public sector funding cuts, so the ability to implement professional practice has been limited by job losses and restrictions in opportunity. While some positive things can be done in terms of being able to describe a green dividend in the implementation of informed conservation practice, there are great challenges in the loss of professionalism, expertise, and institutional knowledge.
BICKERSTETH The 2014 declaration was a watershed and occurred in part because the IIC and ICOM-CC conferences were back-to-back in roughly the same part of the world. It was a great moment to seize. But it was also a watershed because in the previous seven or eight years the parameters we'd been living with since Garry Thomson's work and the energy required to achieve those parameters were suddenly butting up against each other. The profession had to decide how to respond. The 2014 declaration was not wholly agreed to by the profession, but since then there's been considerable maturing of the debate. It moved us forward in a way that previously had not been achieved, and there's been a massive amount of new science that's come out. Yesterday I was actually looking at the papers for the IIC Preventive Conservation conference in Turin, and they show a high level of work on implementation and a wider understanding of the science behind what happens with environmental change.
BRATASZ I'm from Poland, which is now among developed countries but for many years was a developing country, and I look at the 2014 declaration as a very powerful document without which I couldn't communicate with decision makers. Not every country is like Britain, where the level of expertise is high. In many museums, you don't have basic expertise and an understanding of sustainability. Given the risk aversion of decision makers such as museum directors, it can be difficult to communicate when you start to speak about parameters. I look at the declaration as a signal to everyone that we need to relax and rethink climate control. For me as a specialist in climate-induced risk, the declaration was a political document—very powerful and very needed.
BICKERSTETHThe word "powerful" is a strong one. Jane, from your perspective, was it a powerful document in the UK?
HENDERSON It has had an effect that you can see through work done in the European standards groups. A couple of new standards came out in 2018—one dealing with specifications for rooms intended for storage or use of collections, and the other dealing with indoor climate.3 What's important about these standards is that they emphasize the concept of this being a decision-making process with criteria. What was powerful about the 2014 declaration was that it outlined the things that really matter in making those decisions—and sustainability is one of the very important factors. With these new standards we'll start to see a greater ability of people to go to decision makers and managers, as Lukasz said, and argue, "Look, these are recognized ways of operating."
JOEL TAYLOR Do any of you see an acknowledgment of the declaration outside conservation?
HENDERSON If it's been acknowledged in Wales, it would probably be because I was raising it. We've been working on devising conservation principles for movable collections in Wales, and it's come up in those discussions. But more to what Lukasz is saying, a lot of museums don't have people who have time to be specialists— it's a trickle down in terms of documents and standards coming out. It's definitely conservators leading it, but there are not many of us in Wales, and certainly not many of us who get to go to conferences. I don't think it's unheard or unwelcome, but conservators do struggle to speak in other forums. We have ICOM-CC, but how many of the CCs go to the main ICOM meeting?
BRATASZ I, too, think there's a problem spreading this concept of sustainability in the museum field. Conservators or conservation scientists are leading the discussion, maybe because they tend to think long term. I'm currently at Yale, and the natural history museum here is well prepared to discuss sustainability because it's so deeply in their mission of conserving biodiversity. The libraries, too. But the fine art museums much less so. It's risk aversion. Many museums, here at Yale or in the United States, lead the nation in contacts with donors and asking them to donate. They look at the relaxation of climate controls as a potential risk that can undermine their claims that they preserve their collection at the highest possible level. But there also are some incentives. In Poland, the main incentive to go for a sustainable solution is as a selling point in grant applications for building new museum storage. It was so powerful that museums started to speak about green museums—not because of political pressure from the top, but to have something to distinguish themselves from competitors. However, I tried to suggest to the ministry in Poland that all applications should include evaluation of energy consumption and sustainable solutions, and the ministry wasn't convinced. I think that they perceive low energy consumption as a solution for poor countries, not rich countries. We have a lot of work to do in this respect.
BICKERSTETH I've seen evidence of the declaration's influence in all sorts of unlikely places. I've been working on historic huts in Antarctica, where it's a document they've used in terms of the uncontrolled environment in the huts. I was in Papua New Guinea two weeks ago, and there it was at the National Museum. They've got a fantastic HVAC system but don't have money to run it, so they were saying, "What can we achieve within these types of parameters?" In those places, it's been accessible and used. I'd also say that I've seen conservators use it to create fantastic relationships with facility managers. In a couple of instances, museum directors have leapt in and said, "We're really on board with this." At other levels—generally more the art gallery scene—it's been a harder process. In sum, where the leaders are on board, great strides have been made. In other instances, there have been political reasons why it's not been used.
HENDERSON Within the UK museum sector, the imperative of sustainability is extremely well established, but I don't know if those making the changes would necessarily link it to the 2014 declaration. That's not to say that they're not linked, but I don't know if it's seen as the cause.
TAYLOR Much debate surrounding this international issue has involved anglophone countries. Has that influenced this discussion?
BICKERSTETH It's very interesting that some of the papers being submitted on this to the IIC 2018 Congress on Preventive Conservation are from Egypt, India, Japan, and Mexico. They're high-quality papers, and very honest. Frankly, there's been a lack of honesty about what's really happening in a lot of institutions. As the science moves forward, there is an ever-greater need for transparency. That's where, in a sense, our non-anglophone colleagues are leading the way.
HENDERSON One thing I wanted to get into this discussion was the assumption that it's all about turning down the air-conditioning and consuming less energy. Actually, it's about improving infrastructure, fixing roofs, doors, building maintenance, and things like that. It's not about lowering air-conditioning, but rather dialing up preventive maintenance—something that's easier to get. A lot of the dishonesty arises because people claim they are aiming for this or that standard, but they really just want to be in the top tier or have Number One next to their name rather than any absolute need. Those people who feel less burdened by that need are able to be more honest about what is required to achieve sensible environmental conditions.
BRATASZ There are a number of very good publications dealing with sustainable energy consumption, but this is more an academic interest. In practice, I don't see statistical change. One obstacle is that there is no publicly available data on energy consumption normalized to the volume or the surface area, so decision makers don't know how much they can save and so on. This information is missing from the equation. There are some simulations, but they are far from the real world situations. A second obstacle relates to the way we evaluate risk connected to climate variation. We generally have three approaches. One is based on analysis of the mechanical behavior of objects, a second is the acclimatization concept, and the third is the use of noninvasive models for tracing damage development. In one model, the mechanical behavior is so oriented toward the risks that they define the worst-case scenario. Museum directors seeing that focus on the risk increase. Conservation science is not really clear why some objects survive remarkably well in uncontrolled environments, such as historic houses and churches. The information is not consistent, and this is an obstacle that needs to be addressed by future research.
BICKERSTETH I believe museums have a wonderful opportunity to be modelers and advocates for sustainability. I know of two or three institutions in Australia who have reduced their energy consumption by 25 to 40 percent. Interestingly, they've mostly done that by HVAC tweaking, not by relaxing parameters. There's much more efficiency that's possible given new knowledge. But the unit cost of energy is rising so fast that energy bills are often increasing despite what they're doing. That's disheartening, but at least they can say they would be rising a lot more if they weren't making these changes.
HENDERSON When you look at social, economic, and environmental factors, conservators are clearly confident in their influence on the environmental issues. We have great enthusiasm for doing that. I would note that there is a huge amount of enthusiasm in this new Sustainability in Conservation group, which is driven by students and emerging conservators.4 I think the museum sector as a whole is very confident about engaging in social and economic programs, but I'm not sure to what extent conservators are engaging in discussions about cohesive communities, sustainable societies, and sustainable growth. I'd like to see our ambition extend into that terrain.
BICKERSTETH Jane, among your students is there increasing optimism around sustainable futures and conservation, or is there pessimism?
HENDERSON I wouldn't say it was optimism or pessimism. I'd say it's passion. The students are passionate about environmental sustainability. We do what's called green impact every year in our labs, and we go for the gold award every time. They're so passionate, thinking much more about green solvents, minimizing use of materials, and stopping running water—just everything. They know they are the generation that has to pull it together.
BRATASZ I agree that among the younger generation and the students there is great enthusiasm. I'm supervising several students at Yale who analyze consumption for generally sustainable solutions, like water consumption or lighting. I even have a group of international students who were asked to speak with our museum directors, and they talked to them about environmental standards and asked difficult questions. The younger generation is definitely with us. Something is changing.
TAYLOR Lukasz, your definition of sustainability was the inclusion of a process and negotiation. Do you see this debate on change across the sector as a cause for optimism?
BRATASZ Absolutely. Sustainability is a process. It's not a green solution or low energy consumption or an HVAC system. It's a process. This is relatively simple when you try to reduce energy consumption in a museum—you change something in your HVAC system. But we need to discuss which part of the society we are valuing—the current generation or future generations? For example, for objects that are photosensitive, what is the social discount rate for showing the object to a person today or in twenty or two hundred years? This discussion is much broader and more interesting. Changing one HVAC system to another is important because of its economic impact, but from an intellectual standpoint the discussion of sustainability opens up so many more doors.
LEVIN You raise the important point of balancing present accessibility with future accessibility. How is that addressed in discussions within the profession and the larger museum community?
HENDERSON In Wales we have a Well-being of Future Generations Act.5All museum grant funding has to show how it addresses that act. There's also money to spend now for energy efficiency measures. So the concept of future generations and the social context is well established in the UK.
BRATASZ But what about loss of the value of the collection due, for example, to deterioration processes? I understand the social discount rate in terms of economic value, but I haven't seen much work on the loss of the artistic value or the authenticity or the color of the object.
HENDERSON There have been quite a few papers, particularly in Australia and Amsterdam, about calculating loss of value. Doing calculations is kind of a two-year process, and it's not something organizations with smaller resources do. It doesn't mean that they don't have the concept of sustainability for future generations— they just lack the resources to do the calculation.
BICKERSTETH Going back to students for a moment, one of the challenges for all educational organizations must be the limited number of teaching modules. What you really need to train these passionate conservators to do is to interface with the other players in this debate, particularly around environmental parameters. We need to be able to talk the language of facilities managers and directors, and at the same time understand the impact of their decisions on the collections we look after. Getting that mix right amongst our passionate young trainee conservators is the challenge.
TAYLOR That's something we've experienced in our Managing Collection Environments initiative, as well as in the training courses we've been doing with midcareer professionals. When we ask them what obstacles they encounter in implementing their activities, it's very rarely understanding the technical information— it's this issue of getting to the table and then being able to communicate the information that they have.
HENDERSON The ability to influence is a key conservation skill. If you're not able to carry the argument, then you can't be an effective preventive conservator. As a young conservator, I was very uninfluential. My technique was shouting and shouting again, and I discovered how uninfluential that was. Influence technique is something I now slip into any course I'm doing on preventive conservation and environmental management. Certainly we should teach communication and influence skills—without a doubt—but courses are two to four years. Careers are thirty to forty years. As a sector, we have to make communication and influence a priority so that throughout their careers, at different levels, conservators can pitch their ideas appropriately.
LEVIN Has there been an increase in collaboration between disciplines? Have conservators been interacting more effectively with museum colleagues?
BICKERSTETH We've definitely advanced. Relationships with directors and facility managers vary a lot, but we're no longer a back-of-house operation. We're seen as a critical part of the operation.
HENDERSON We're out of the closet, and we're in the galleries. We don't stay behind the scenes. Conservation is now front of house.
BRATASZ I also think there is collaboration among the various fields, with different specialists speaking to each other. But the nature of our work has also changed. We are no longer in the situation where there is some preventive conservation rule we can simply apply without looking at the consequences of our measures, which go beyond particular institution, region, or country. We look at the consequences of various options and then negotiate. To do that, we need to interact with many disciplines. This didn't exist before, but it has developed. How we work has changed.
HENDERSON I'd like to pick up on risk-based management and risk analysis. There's an inherent conservatism in the conservation field stemming from our concern with "damage," and if we constantly talk in terms of what can go wrong, we feed that. There's an unspoken but underlying assumption in preventive conservation that our role is to make things last as long as possible. I'm not sure we should consider ourselves in charge of how long things last. We should be in charge of interpreting, explaining, and managing the life expectancy and longevity of objects. If you engage people in a discussion about what benefits you can gain from an activity—not just the risks—you shift the discussion. We talk about how a collection might be damaged but rarely talk about who might benefit from its use. That leads us to a kind of colonialist position that the people with the most resources, skills, and familiarity with the collections are the ones who do the least damage in the sense of accelerated change. Those people will always be privileged, whereas if we talk about who has been excluded from cultural heritage—who would gain most socially and economically from access to cultural heritage—it may be communities of people who don't know how to handle objects or don't have the air-conditioning. We talk about risk-based but we don't talk about reward-based. We set up the activity as potentially risky and therefore risk aversion is fed, whereas if people who have traditionally been excluded suddenly have a chance to have a tangible relationship with something concrete from their past, the reward might be establishing their social place in society, and a closing of the cultural divide.
BRATASZ I absolutely agree with you. With sustainable development, there is this path that goes from present to future. We should look at that, but at the same time include those other members of society in the present. I think we can extend the term sustainable not only to time but to different parts of society.
TAYLOR I personally see no particular reason why a privileged few in future generations should be given access to something that less privileged people in the present generation do not have access to. To a certain extent that speaks to the social sustainability that we all agree is a part of this. It's really negotiating these different kinds of access socially and temporally.
BRATASZ I'm a physicist. I need numbers. For example, if we have to decide how long you can show the object before you damage it, you have to define how you compare and weight the value to various social groups now and in the future. And if we don't have a number that compares one view of an object today with someone seeing it in five hundred years, we cannot answer the question of what and for whom we preserve our heritage.
HENDERSON We need the quantitative data to underpin the discussion. And conservators should be the ones coming into the discussion of the quantitative data. But that is also a discussion about the value of access—and I'm not sure that we, as a profession, are very good at that. There are different forms of access and benefit that I don't hear discussed or well described in the conservation community, and I don't know how well we are able then to build that into Lukasz's model. We need to expand our conceptions in these areas.
BICKERSTETH It's a space that our colleagues in built heritage are better at. The concept of significance assessments is tied to a discussion of values. Certainly, conservators have far more to say about the significance of what we're working on in terms of its social, cultural, artistic, and historic values, etc., and overlaying that into decision-making processes. Our built heritage conservator friends tend to be brought up with that discussion and that training. I'm not sure we're so good at it.
HENDERSON All of our students have to do significance assessments, in which you have to negotiate with owners at different levels of complexity, so I think the concept of significance is certainly coming through with the new generation.
BICKERSTETH It's a new-generation thing. I think the mid-generation people struggle with it.
TAYLOR An area where a lot of decision-making goes on—not always with transparency—is international loans. How would each of you relate decision-making to the issue of environmental standards for international loans?
HENDERSON The big art museums and well-funded institutions feel they have to be seen as the best or A-plus. Their decision-making may have nothing to do with the needs of the collection and more to do with the ambitions of the institution. There's nothing necessarily wrong about that as long as you know that's why you're doing it—that you're not pretending to do it for the collection when it doesn't actually need it. Because if you're doing it to get more funding, great—knock yourself out. As long as you spend some of it on conservation. In terms of the 2014 declaration, we can move away from standards about numbers and move towards standards as well as procedures, because then we might get somewhere. What I like about these declarations is that there are factors you take into consideration. If we start by saying, "We'll take these particular factors into consideration," that's how we'll be honest about it. Then we can begin to do more accountable decision-making.The declaration speaks to that by stopping numbers being the story and making the story those things that matter to us—sustainability, access, use, and enjoyment.
BICKERSTETH It's worth remembering the lead-up to the 2014 declaration—the National Museum Directors' Council statement, the Bizot Group statement, and the strong view articulated by our German colleagues that this move was driven by big art museums to make loaning easier and cheaper. It also was affected by an effort to reduce the number of couriers accompanying the art loans. We saw decoupling that from the decision-making about permanent collections as critical to what the declaration was seeking to identify. Has that moved in the last four years? The pressure on loans is as great as ever. I hear fewer complaints about ridiculous parameters being set by loaning institutions, but I'm sure it still goes on. Inevitably what happens is that if A is lending to B, A will provide strict guidelines to ensure that B will look after the loans as well as they possibly can. Then B says, "You're not achieving that back at A, so why should we do that when we borrow from you?" And that discussion goes round and round. Loaning is such a critical part of the art world. There's no doubt it creates greater access. But the damage to objects is something rarely talked about in the process of loaning. It must be happening given the nature of things being moved around the world, but we hear very little about it. There is a whole other discussion around where the loan world would exist in this in this environmental space.
LEVIN Looking ahead ten years, where do each of you think we might be in this larger reevaluation process?
BICKERSTETH We still have an enormous amount to learn about what climatic variations do to objects. But scientific data will continue to grow, and the technology to analyze that data will get smarter. This will continue to amplify our knowledge. For us as conservators, that will enhance our ability to engage with our museum colleagues. We're only going to become more important, and our role will be one of increasing relevance.
BRATASZ The main barriers in implementing sustainable solutions are not related to how well we understand the environmental impact on the objects. The real issue is building a dialogue and engaging in a process that is transparent, and in which we clearly identify our aims. Most of the damage is related to temperature, which we set for human comfort—not for the good and preservation of an object. So we need an integration of comprehensive risk assessments with an understanding of where values are concentrated and how they relate to the society. —is is the more important issue in my mind.
HENDERSON As Julian says, we'll continue to grow the data. But we have to be more honest about the things we don't know. We are dealing with every kind of material and every kind of environment in many multiple combinations. How are we going to make good decisions where we don't have all the data? That ties into Lukasz's comments about transparency, openness, and honesty. If we are more open and honest about what we do and don't know— and involve more people—then we can make decisions where we accept an inherent leap into the dark on the grounds that we believe the benefits are enough. This goes back to reward-based activity. It's always going to be less risky to lend something to the National Gallery in London than to a small museum in South Wales or in southern India. In those situations, there will be fewer resources. But that doesn't necessarily mean you should oppose lending simply because the measurable change would be greater in those museums. The measurable change has to be offset by the measurable benefit for people who are going to gain access to those collections.
2.World Commission on Environment and Development, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, colloquially known as "The Brundtland Report" (1987), www.un-documents.net/ourcommon- future.pdf
3.British Standards Institution, Conservation of Cultural Heritage—Specifications for Location, Construction and Modification of Buildings or Rooms Intended for the Storage or Use of Heritage Collections (BS EN 16893:2018); and British Standards Institution, Conservation of Cultural Heritage: Indoor Climate—Ventilation Management for the Protection of Cultural Heritage Buildings and Collections (BS EN 15759-2:2018).