Sustainability Committee Interview with Caitlin Southwick, Founder and Executive Director of Ki Culture and Sustainability in Conservation


On April 14, AIC Sustainability Committee Student Member, Annabelle (Bellie) Camp, sat down (virtually) with Caitlin Southwick, Founder and Executive Director of Ki Culture and Sustainability in Conservation (SiC) to discuss her career path and the ongoing work of both organizations. More information on Caitlin can be found here

Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity, and extraneous material omitted.

This is part of the Sustainability Committee’s new initiative to collect stories from AIC members and sustainability leaders in our field. If you have a project or story you’d like to share, please contact us at

IMG_2192.jpg       Caitlin Southwick

What are your titles? You seem to have many. 

I am the Founder and Executive Director of Ki Culture and Sustainability in Conservation. I have a MSc in conservation and restoration of cultural heritage, as well as a Professional Doctorate. 

What is your educational background?

I did my undergrad at Boston University, and I was a major in Classical Civilization and a minor in Archaeology. I then studied conservation in Italy. I have a professional certificate from Lorenzo de’Medici, and I did a triennio program  at l’Accademia di Belle Arti di Carrara. I have a graduate diploma in Conservation Practice from Cardiff University. My MSc and Professional Doctorate were both from the University of Amsterdam. 

When did you first become interested in issues of sustainability and climate change and cultural heritage specifically?

It's always been something I've been very passionate about. I never really made the connection to conservation and cultural heritage until I was at Cardiff, because in Italy, a lot of the materials and techniques that we use are very traditional. One day, I was walking by the trash can in the lab, and I looked down and saw that it was full of gloves. I said, “Well, that's wasteful, can’t we recycle those or something?”  So I started researching, and I found out that gloves can't be recycled through normal recycling, but there are recycling programs. This launched me in this whole pursuit of “What other things can we do to be greener?” I realized that there wasn't really a resource center out there, so I decided to build one. That's how I started SiC. 

So that was the impetus for starting SiC? 

Yes, it was the gloves. I was trying to find information about recycling or alternatives, and there are resources, but there aren't resources for cultural heritage. I thought there should be some place for conservators to find information about green practices. I wanted to start a network for people to share their ideas and best practices. Also, when starting SiC, I was still a student. I didn't have decision-making power on where we purchased our gloves or what kind of gloves we used, and it wasn't possible for me to implement recycling programs. I spent all this time going through all of the different channels to try and get these recycling programs in order, and it could be very frustrating. We all have so much on our plates already, and I thought there should be some place that we can share ideas and learn from each other and find practical solutions and support. 


I just wanted to figure out ways that people could connect and talk about these issues. We need one place to get that information from so that's why I started SiC.

Since starting SiC, have you seen positive change in the way conservators approach sustainability?

Absolutely.  There's a huge interest in the topic, and once the information gets out there and people realize that there are choices and greener options, they're very happy to do that.  Whenever I go to a conference or talk to people about SiC or Ki Culture, it's always, “Wow. Thank you for doing this. This is so needed. I really want to be more sustainable. How do I do it?” So there's a real positive shift towards practicing more sustainably. It's just a matter of getting the information out there and knowing what you can do. It's been really humbling to know all of the support and encouragement that I've received. It's really very motivating as well. 

You recently started Ki Culture. What made you decide to start that in addition to the work that you were already doing and are still doing with SiC?

Well, through my work at SiC, I was invited to be a member of the Working Group on Sustainability for ICOM. My work with ICOM made me realize that it's not just conservation that has this issue. Museums are also struggling with ways to implement more sustainable practices. Then I got involved with the Climate Heritage Network, and I realized that it's also built heritage. I was on a call with someone from the U.N.F.C.C.C, and they were talking about how they'd be very happy to engage with sustainability in the cultural heritage sector, but they don't want to talk to conservators and museum people and built heritage people separately. They want one point of reference. Then I realized there's so much work being done, but within separate little fields or within separate organizations, and we really need to bring everyone together as a united front and start sharing our resources, as opposed to everyone trying to reinvent the wheel. So I founded Ki Culture. The idea was basically because I realized this was something that needed to be done and that we needed to start working together. Because conservation is kind of a niche within a niche, and it has its own set of unique issues and needs, I thought it was important to keep SiC as an independently operating entity, so it is now a branch of Ki Culture

What are some of the projects that both organizations are currently undertaking?

Well, let's start with SiC. We're really focusing this year on gathering the resources and making them accessible in a resource center. The core of this resource center is going to be the Guy Tree [named after Guy Devreux, Head of the Marble and Cast Restoration Lab at the Vatican Museums, which is basically a decision chart for sustainable alternatives in the field.

We're also working on putting together a Green Solvents handbook and a recycling program, where we’re mapping out resources and information on local recycling schemes and centers across the world. We have our tips and tricks section as well, a weekly idea, small scale on how to be more sustainable. Then there’s the Student Ambassador Program, which empowers students to get involved with sustainability and implement sustainable practices at their universities. That's been running for three years now. SiC also has regional branches, which I think is quite important, as a lot of conservation issues are regionally based, especially considering local practices or local materials. We're also putting together an academic journal which will have peer reviewed publications on sustainable initiatives so that we can really focus more on getting research out there.

With Ki Culture, we have two main deliverables that we're focusing on developing right now in addition to two research projects. The first one is the Digital Resource Center, similar to what SiC will be offering, but it's broader. That's really more focused on literature, resources, references, and best practices, case studies and research. So if you're a curator in Indiana or an archaeologist in India and you want information on maybe how to put together a green exhibition, [you can] get the resources you need. The Digital Resource Center will be launching this summer. 

In addition, we are putting together the Sustainability Ambassador Program, based on “how to” guides on sustainability. The first three that we're developing this year are energy, materials and waste, and social sustainability. The Ki Books are put together by a group of collaborators from different backgrounds: stability engineers, climate scientists, biologists, facilities managers, museum directors, and cultural heritage professionals. The books will be available starting in January of 2021. 

The last two projects we’re developing at Ki Culture are collaborative research projects. The first one is focusing on circularity in art transportation. We're working with a number of partners as well as cities to do a research project on how to be more circular with loans, [as well as with] different vendors who work on more sustainable packaging alternatives. Then another research project that we're developing is about audience impact and visitor engagement. One of the big goals with Ki Culture is not just to make cultural heritage more sustainable as a field, but also to figure out how to most effectively utilize cultural heritage and the influence of cultural heritage to educate the public on sustainability. And it’s of course important for us to understand how to do that. 

In your opinion, what are the steps that cultural institutions should be doing right now to improve their impact on the environment?

Talking about it. People don't talk about it. I think it's really important to communicate. First of all, figure out what your impact actually is and be aware about it and address it. As a conservator I faced this problem: “I'm a conservator. What am I supposed to do? I don't have decision making power. I can't tell you where our energy sources come from.” It can be very difficult to find big scale solutions, so I think that there are a couple of different things that people can do right away. One thing is to look at what their climate conditions are and assess if it's necessary to be so rigid. I think it's also important to focus on smaller scale initiatives that can reduce things right away. Little things like turning off your computer or closing your fume hood can save a ton of energy. If you're talking policy level, make sure that the people that you work with have sustainable initiatives. Stop with the loans and exhibitions that are so wasteful. Think about the carbon footprint before you loan something to huge exhibitions all over the world.

How do you see networks of organizations being effective in solving sustainability problems?

What I found with networks of organizations is that a lot of them are doing really great work within their network, but they aren't working together maybe as effectively as they could be. For example, the NISE (National Informal STEM Education) Network partnered with Arizona State University and created a program for sustainability in science and technology museums. They've created some phenomenal resources, put on workshops, and had a fellowship program where people could come and be trained on site. But once again, it’s not as well known as it should be. So I think the big issue is communication.

There are a lot of networks that are promoting sustainability at their conferences, for example, like AIC and their sustainability session, and it's been wonderful the last few years to see how much that's grown and how much interest there is. I think that the most impressive thing is that all of these networks are actually engaging with it. They're all creating their own sustainability work force or task force or working group or whatever it is, and they are acknowledging the issue and addressing it. Now we just need to be working together. 

Do you think that there are ways larger institutions can support smaller ones in being more sustainable?

Absolutely. I think big institutions need to set examples. One of the big things that a lot of smaller institutions say when it comes to sustainability is they don't have the budget for it. Maybe there's some ways that larger institutions can support smaller institutions by letting them tag on to things like recycling programs or something. I think it's hugely important for our institutions to work together and not just regionally, but globally. It's also really interesting to build partnerships with museums in developing countries so that they can get exposure and access to resources that we have more in developed countries and start sharing ideas.

Is there anything you'd like to add or anything that you feel should definitely be mentioned, but we didn't touch on? 

The really big thing that I'd just like to emphasize is that some people feel that in conservation or cultural heritage we can't get the big manufacturers to make better, more sustainable materials for us because we're such a niche market. Don't be discouraged. I think that we have such a unique opportunity to be leaders in this movement, not just because we are conservators and it goes hand-in-hand: we are conserving our past for our future. But we need to also conserve the future. In order to do that, we need to treat our planet and our society with respect and kindness.

The other thing is that we can do it. Sometimes people can feel overwhelmed by sustainability. It's an intangible kind of abstract, huge thing. There's so much work to be done, and it's overwhelming. It's really important for conservatives to understand that even the smallest change makes a huge difference. I think that that's the most important takeaway.