Collection Care Network Blog: Interview with Emma Gaia Ziraldo

By Colleen Grant posted 01-04-2022 16:29

This interview is part of the Collection Care Network's (CCN) blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at

This edition of the blog is an interview CCN Editor Wendi Field Murray conducted with Emma Gaia Ziraldo, Collaborating Project Coordinator (Meewerkend projectleider), Helicon Conservation Support. While a Preventive Conservation Fellow at the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) in 2020, Emma conducted research on COVID’s impact on collection care.
   Emma Gaia Ziraldo @Emma Ziraldo

Hello Emma! It’s very nice to meet you, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Could you start by introducing yourself, and sharing a bit about your education, work, and professional interests?

Hi Wendi! Thank you for inviting me and for your interest in my research. I am an enthusiastic conservation scientist with expertise in preventive conservation, environmental monitoring, collection management, preservation planning, and diagnostic analysis of artworks. I studied in Italy and gained an MSc in Material Science for Heritage Preservation from the University of Turin in 2015 and a BA in Technology for Study and Conservation of Cultural Heritage from the University of Milan in 2013. Prior to joining Helicon Conservation Support in the Netherlands, I worked for the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts and the Getty Conservation Institute’s Managing Collection Environments Initiative in the US, as well as the National Trust, the Oxford Preservation Trust, and the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in the UK. I also held the position of Collection Care Manager: Preservation and Access at a private contemporary art collection in Milan, Italy. Throughout my career, working in different institutions around the world, I have developed several professional interests, including storage strategies for conservation planning, material properties and deterioration processes, technical imaging for condition monitoring, and sustainable strategies in conservation and exhibition planning.

Before we discuss the specific research you conducted as a Preventive Conservation Fellow at the Conservation Center for Arts & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) , can you describe how COVID affected your fellowship? Did you and the CCAHA have to find ways to adapt it to COVID constraints? If so, how did you make it work? 

My fellowship year was dramatically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, but I had to respond to it. Winston Churchill once said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” You only get the chance of being the NEH Preventive Conservation Fellow once and I wanted to make the most out of my opportunity in that professional role. My fellowship research project should have been focused on a practical study of a specific collection. Due to the lockdown, however, I could not access any organization’s collections. Therefore, I had to come up with a plan. The CCAHA Preservation Services team helped me in scouting for ideas and together we decided on a project that could be conducted remotely, by connecting institutions, and making them feel together in a pandemic. The survey was therefore addressed to collecting institutions across the United States to examine how the lockdown impacted operations.

Please tell us more about that research. Could you tell us what that project was about, and what prompted you to undertake it?

The interest in crafting that survey came from my question at that time, during the lockdown, of trying to figure out what were the most relevant concerns for organizations while buildings and collections were inaccessible to collection care staff. I also wanted to analyze the diverse impact of COVID-19 on institutions of different sizes and types. Mostly focusing on housekeeping practices, environmental monitoring and IPM needs during a crisis situation, the outcome of the survey was the article “Learning in the Present to Prepare for the Future: A Greater Understanding of the Impact of COVID-19 on Collections Preservation in the U.S.” The idea was also that the final report on the research findings would help museums face these challenges and plan for future long-term closures, such as preparing what might need to be changed in the process of risk assessments, bringing a new dimension to the overall assessment process in the long term.

In your report, you talk a lot about how cultural institutions had to pivot in order to adapt to a new online reality. How do you think COVID changed the way we view the role of digital technologies in museum work (or our current ability to harness them)?

First of all, I want to say that the tangibility of museums is essential to me. As Louise O. Fresco wrote in the article in the NRC Handelsblad, Netherlands “Art, we can only conclude, keeps society alive.” The overall experience and emotions that a temporary exhibition, a permanent collection, or an open storage visit can give you, are not comparable by any means to accessing it online, remotely. Yet, museums became much more aware of the potential to reinvent themselves in innovative and creative ways thanks to COVID19. There is no question that museums are now relying much more on digital technologies but what is essential at this point is to carefully choose the tools to do so. And we should not forget that the conservation job we do has to be on-site, in direct contact with artifacts. Therefore, even though digital might have become essential, I think that traditional forms of engagement with museum stakeholders still go beyond.

Did any of the survey responses surprise you, or give you food for thought about the state of collections care in the U.S.?

Nothing was really a big surprise, but a couple of the things gave me food for thought. The lack of training for facility managers, custodial staff, and security staff in collection care during emergencies is an example. If those professionals are the only ones to have access to buildings in crisis situations, why aren’t they prepared to take action on physical objects (e.g. collection move, housekeeping tasks, etc.) and not just the building envelope? The survey results showed that in most cases those staff members were communicating well with collection care staff, but at times not in charge of taking actions on objects. Ideally, more inter-department cross-training should be considered, especially at the surveyed organizations that were mostly medium-small institutions - their annual operating budgets ranged from less than $50,000 to more than $1,000,000. However, one thing that facility or custodial staff could oversee pretty well were pest traps. Survey results showed that if the organization has an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, then the lockdown did not make it impossible to continue inspecting and replacing traps as needed. There is certainly a need in the field for improving methods of communication overall, as well as training. Perhaps organizations should emphasize the importance of cross-training and policy developments especially regarding object handling and housekeeping. Small actions that can make a big difference in the long-term preservation of collections. At the same time, though, maintenance activities should be familiar to collection care staff. So it really should be a two-way training process.

Based on survey responses, what, in your mind, are some of the major lessons learned about collections care during COVID? In what ways has COVID been instructive for museum professionals as we look toward the future? 

Togetherness! It is the key for the future of cultural collecting institutions. Mutual aid and community care should continue being developed and establishing collaborations with nearby institutions should be emphasized. The unique opportunity that COVID-19 gave us in sharing, promoting and gathering ideas, and learning from each other should be embraced moving forward. Resilience, of course, should not be forgotten, but strengthened. I personally found the digital engagement that organizations embraced toward the use of online platforms to hold conferences, workshops and webinars during 2020 to be very useful, and I am very pleased to see that we are still developing and promoting it.

Lastly, congratulations on your new position at Helicon Conservation Support! What are you most looking forward to about this work, and what lessons from your time at CCAHA will you take with you?

Thank you! I am very thrilled about this new role and am looking forward to developing conservation and collection care projects with Helicon colleagues. I will most certainly bring with me a positive attitude and great energy in order to always find ways to do things better. I like to be challenged and at the same time to learn more every day. CCAHA certainly taught me how to apply best practices for long-term preservation planning as well as delivering high quality education programs for specialists in the heritage field, and these will definitely be part of the expertise I’ll take with me in this new position. As a good listener, I am very curious and open to exchange of perspectives and ideas!

If you enjoyed this post, check out CCN's other most recent blog, an interview with Nicole Peters.