What is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and How Does it Help Heritage Professionals?

By Sarah Nunberg posted 08-24-2018 09:37


Part II of "Planning a Life Cycle Assessment Library of Preventive Conservation Methods"

Sarah Nunberg, Objects Conservation Studio

Sarah Sutton, LEED-AP, Sustainable Museums

This project is about making the invisible visible through employing Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to identify the environmental and human health impacts of the materials we use and practices we follow. It aims to help custodians of cultural heritage identify their environmental impact through informed decision making. 

Though LCA is mostly new to the cultural heritage profession, it was developed in the 1960s and 1970s and is currently used by industry with the increased efforts to "go green." For example, the clothing industry is increasingly known for its use of LCA to reduce the impact from clothing production, use, and disposal. This LCA from Levi Strauss of blue jeans provides an excellent example of LCA application to study a product that is familiar to many. 

While the goals and context of each LCA study may differ, the approach follows a specific format for accuracy and credibility, which was established through guidelines set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO:2010). These guidelines define four phases of an LCA:

  • a) the goal and scope definition phase
  • b) the inventory analysis phase
  • c) the impact assessment phase
  • d) the interpretation phase

When studying the environmental impact of a product, action or material, the first step is to define the focus of the study.  Next, the goals of the study are set through establishing the system boundaries, which also define the scope of the project. Usually the scope addresses the impact of a material or action from cradle to grave or cradle to gate. Cradle to grave analysis encompasses the lifespan of an object or action from first manufacture to use and final disposal, while cradle to gate analyses includes only up to the 'gate' where the product leaves the manufacturer's hands. 

For example, examining a newspaper from cradle to gate considers growing the trees, including fertilizers and other agricultural inputs such as water, harvesting, transport, and processing the pulp into paper. Cradle to grave would examine everything in the cradle to gate study along with transport of the paper, printing and packaging it for distribution, transport, and then disposal of the paper. Whether a study encompasses cradle to gate or cradle to grave of an object or action depends on the extent of the system boundary defined for the study. 

When analyzing the act of exhibiting an object, the system boundary may include: art and courier transport, crate construction and packing materials; gallery preparation including exhibition cases, vitrines, and the gallery wall construction and paint finishes, and then the associated energy for environmental management (HVAC system) while the item is displayed, or stored for travel. You can extend the system boundary to also include the administration aspects such as registration activities, condition reporting, and even associated energy through computer use. One might choose not to include the energy and resources expended in making the art object or the impact of building the museum that houses the objects. You determine how broad or narrow the assessment is.

In our next three blog posts, we will share the three LCA conducted as part of this Tier 1 grant. 

They have been carried out in partnership with engineer Dr. Mathew Eckelman of Northeastern University and his students to populate a future LCA library accessible through the AIC website. Over the past five years Dr. Eckelman and his students carried out seven LCA studies, helping co-director Sarah Nunberg and advisor Pamela Hatchfield in making the treatment, packing, exhibition and storage decisions that, in the process, led to the design of this project. 

The posts will show how we've applied the LCA process in these three examples: 

  • three silver objects, each cared for and displayed under differing circumstances (see photos)
  • the impacts of various cleaning systems and their components 
  • the impacts of a series of storage approaches with varying degrees of active climate control methods. 

Through this project we hope to collect data concerning the needs of practitioners, which we can apply to populate the LCA tool - with materials and actions. We expect to identify hotspots, or materials or actions within specific systems that result in the highest carbon footprint or unacceptable results for other impact categories. Once we know what those hotspots are, professionals can make informed decisions to choose alternative methods and materials with reduced risk to human and environmental health.

We would be delighted to hear from you with comments or questions, please contact us at and 

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, 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. 

Revere Bowl, MFA Boston
Gorham Bowl, Gibson House, courtesy of Sarah Nunberg
Lowell Silver Urn, Princeton University Art Museum
Lowell Silver Urn, Princeton University Art Museum, courtesy of Sarah Nunberg
Revere Bowl, MFA Boston
Revere Bowl, MFA Boston, courtesy of Sarah Nunberg