Part V of "Planning a Life Cycle Analysis Library of Preventive Conservation Methods" A Pilot LCA Workshop: April 2018


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

A Pilot LCA Workshop: April 2018

Sarah Nunberg and Sarah Sutton

This is the fifth post about the activities of the FAIC project to plan for a Library of Preventive Conservation Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). We describe earlier posts at the end. This post describes an LCA workshop held at Pratt Institute in New York City to introduce the project and LCA to peers and assess the appropriateness of our approach and to identify future steps for this work.  

This workshop was an add-on to the grant project to provide additional feedback to support planning for continued work. Over two days in April of 2018, fourteen professionals joined us for lectures and collabortive work to understand LCA and its best uses for the field. They included museum and private conservators, conservation students and training leaders from New York University, University of Delaware, UCLA, and Buffalo State University; Pratt Institute faculty, and staff at private arts services. Three of the project’s four co-Principal Investigators (co-PIs) each led portions of the workshop, Sarah Sutton, Sarah Nunberg, and Dr. Matt Eckelman. 

The first day focused on leveling everyone’s understanding of the project, LCA, and the application of LCA to cultural heritage collections work. We demonstrated a beta art conservation LCA tool developed by Dr. Eckelman based on data collected by Sarah Nunberg during the grant project (to be introduced in an upcoming blogpost). Then, during the second day, participants practiced modeling their own LCAs using Ecoinvent lifecycle database, and concluded with a discussion of the project’s future. 

During the modeling portion they used a spreadsheet provided by Dr. Eckelman for a very wide variety of common products. The idea was to take something familiar, such as a reusable water bottle, identify the individual components of the product, and uncover the collective impact of their item’s products and manufacture. Each participant discussed his or her LCA focus before starting and Dr. Eckelman made suggestions to guide the research, then everyone had about an hour to use the LCA process and database. The exercise highlighted the difficulty in identifying all the materials included in a product and then describing the characteristics of the materials appropriately to find the right information in the database to include in the individual LCA. We attributed much of that difficulty to the lack of transparency and completeness in the description of the manufacture of most modern products: Who knows where metal is sourced, and what energy is used to process it? Who knows exactly what kind of rubber or plastic is involved in a product? These matter in the accuracy of the LCA but often are not easily accessible. 

As a group we then drew some general conclusions about LCA, and some specific ones about this project. In general, we all felt that although running LCA was challenging, it was helpful to use the database tool to fully understand the complexity of this work. We also felt that understanding this information about products in collections care is extremely important. Participants felt that this sort of training should definitely be repeated. They felt that the practical portion should use the beta search tool from this project rather than the generic tool reflecting the larger materials “universe.” This would narrow the scope of the activity while heightening the applicability during the learning process. 

During the discussion of what would be most useful to participants, participants came to an agreement that, because there is so much interpretation associated with the process, on more complex LCA the field is better served by a library of case studies to read and adapt, rather than resources to conduct an LCA on their own. Such case studies would include the LCA, and images, and a clear description of how to interpret the study.   

Participants suggested that the LCA tool evaluate exhibition materials and packing materials as these are widely used across the field yet so specific as to be easily identifiable and reasonably easy to assess. They feel that those materials require reasonable interpretation skills by the user, whereas the chemicals and other conservation materials are more complex to interpret by the casual user, and are better suited for case studies. 

Participants questioned including human health impacts for a few reasons: 

  • measuring the human health impact is complicated as it involves many complex issues, and legalities
  • disseminating the data at the level of detail required could be potentially be confusing for users

After further discussion with Dr. Eckelman the co-PIs concluded that he could include human health impact assessment from his resources, and grant project materials could acknowledge and refer to additional health and safety information sources.

As we considered moving beyond this grant planning stages, participants suggested that creating and properly funding a committee of consultants and research fellows would help formulate case studies, set up categories for the LCA tool (cleaning materials, consolidants and glues, paints), help select items to populate the tool, and help collect any other necessary data. For the LCA tool they suggested we include a materials information request tool, and an “I wish you had” box, to tell us through the frequency and type of requests to move work earlier on the list, perhaps, and what else we’re missing that the field has interest in.  

After the workshop, we emailed evaluation forms to participants with an anonymous submittal process. A third of the participants responded. All were favorable about the course including difficulty level, relevance to professional work, course delivery, and discussion. Most felt they gained sufficient understanding of LCA to disseminate the information, though needed more time and guidance to perform their own LCA. All would recommend the course to a colleague and felt “it was thought provoking and opened up new ways of thinking.”

The experience of the workshop and the feedback from the participants has been very helpful in planning the implementation phase of this project. We will use their recommendations in the design of the application to NEH during 2019. 

Previous posts oriented readers to the project, to the LCA process, and to two Life Cycle Assessments. This research project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Grant PR-253401-17, from the Division of Preservation and Access. Team Members: Eric Pourchot, FAIC; Sarah Nunberg, Objects Conservation Studio; Sarah Sutton, Sustainable Museums; Matthew Eckelman, PhD., Engineer, Northeastern University; Pamela Hatchfield, Museum of Fine Arts Boston; and Michael C. Henry, P.E. & AIA, Watson & Henry Associates.