Part I "Planning a Life Cycle Analysis Library of Preventive Conservation Methods"

By Eric Pourchot posted 07-31-2018 15:27


“Planning a Life Cycle Analysis Library of Preventive Conservation Methods:” An Introduction to the NEH Tier 1 Research and Development Grant

Sarah Nunberg, Objects Conservation Studio

Sarah Sutton, LEED-AP, Sustainable Museums


At what cost to our health and to the environment and do we protect, preserve, and exhibit cultural heritage? How can we tell, reliably?

“Custodians of cultural heritage use known carcinogens in conservation treatments, curate exhibitions that require long distance transportation of artifacts worldwide, and advise energy intensive environmental management, often with little consideration of potential impacts to the environment and health. Many custodians of cultural heritage believe that the quantities of solvents, amount of air travel, frequency of construction for exhibition and storage, and use of heating and cooling are minimal compared with industry and most business uses, justifying their lack of concern and reluctance to change work habits.”[i]

When cultural heritage professionals make choices between one conservation method or another, one product or exhibit material or another, they do so without a clear view to the negative human and environmental impacts of those decisions. Even health and sustainability professionals would struggle to distinguish among a myriad of hidden impacts, and then decide which are most beneficial or least-bad. Without an agreed-upon method for visualizing and assessing those impacts, most heritage professionals avoid or overlook this critical step. The goal of this research project is to help simplify that process to create better human and environmental health outcomes for our profession.

 FAIC was awarded a Tier 1 Research and Development grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in January 2017 to study

  • how to apply Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to evaluate the environmental impact of comparative materials and actions that curators, conservators, registrars and art handlers frequently use as they manage collections, and
  • how to provide an adaptive tool that allows professionals to query a database to identify the related impacts of individual materials and processes they are considering using.

 The result will be a plan and process to develop a library of LCA cases highlighting specific projects that have identified the impacts of commonly-used products or practices, and to also populate an interactive database that will be a tool any practitioner can use to uncover the potential impacts of choices when planning to treat, protect, or display heritage objects.

Who Is the Library For?

Since the project goal is to help a wide range of cultural practitioners answer questions about the impacts of their choices, we expect users to come from a wide variety of collections care roles. This includes facilities managers, registrars and collections managers, curators and conservators, librarians and archivists, exhibit designers and preparators, and shippers and handlers. An exhibit designer may be choosing among two types of materials in mounts; a conservator may be designing a cleaning system; the facilities manager may be thinking about re-lamping some cases; and the registrar maybe trying to sort through a long list of materials to be ordered. We have attempted to align our research and planning with this range of practitioner needs by speaking with private conservators, curators, engineers, and researchers, so far.

What We’re Producing

We expect to  

  • Complete three LCA projects (see subsequent posts)
  • Test our beta LCA product impact search tool this spring and summer
  • Then identify what classes of components to continue to add to the search tool database
  • Complete a priority list of other LCAs to complete during an implementation project.

 Purpose for the Field

As a research project the next steps are continually evolving, but we hope to expand the project with an implementation grant to implement the ideas developing now. Professionals reviewing the project proposal to NEH noted in their comments that this project may be successful both with “the difficult task of creating concrete yet widely applicable” tools, and that it would reveal “new information of value to decision-making.”

 So far, it has been an important journey of discovery. An important part of that has been learning what the field needs, and then shaping the design of the LCA and the beta tool to best reflect those needs. The next post will introduce you to the LCA process, and later posts will introduce you to our results so far.

[i] Nunberg, Sarah, Sarah Sutton, Matthew Eckelman, “Planning a Life Cycle Analysis Library and Beta Tool for Sustainable Cultural Heritage Preservation and Exhibition Practices,” in Addressing the Challenges of Communicating Climate Change Across Audiences. Editors Walter Leal Filho, Bettina Christina Lackner, Henry McGhie, Springer 2018. Pieces of this blogpost, and this project’s story were presented at the International Conference for Museums & Climate, Manchester, UK, 2018.


This research project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Grant PR-253401-17, from the Division of Preservation and Access. Project Director: Eric Pourchot, FAIC. Co-PIs Sarah Nunberg, Objects Conservation Studio, and Sarah Sutton, LEED-AP, Sustainable Museums. Team Members: Engineer, Matthew Eckelman, PhD., Northeastern University; Pamela Hatchfield, Museum of Fine Arts Boston; and Michael C. Henry, P.E. & AIA, Watson & Henry Associates.