Part VI of "Planning a Life Cycle Analysis Library of Preventive Conservation Methods" Developing a Beta LCA Tool for the Field


This is the sixth post about the activities of the FAIC project to plan for a Library of Preventive Conservation Life Cycle Analysis (LCA). The project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities through a Research & Development Grant, 2017-2018.  

This LCA Library planning project includes not only conducting LCA projects to share as cases, but also exploring the development of a search tool that can help anyone working with cultural heritage collections identify the environmental and health impacts of individual materials or components. To develop the tool requires two types of work, creating the database format for searches, and identifying the database components. We had help from our peers and co-Principal Investigator (PI) Dr. Matthew Eckelman on this portion of the grant project. 

First, we had to identify the database components for our beta version. The co-PIs and interested peers all independently developed lists of materials relevant to collections care, attempting to identify as many items as possible. The first step was to acquire lists of materials used and actions carried out by conservators, registrars, curators, art handlers, and exhibition management. 

This process was more challenging than expected. We asked a range of art museums, historic houses, archives, and private conservators to provide lists of materials they use, however, many institutions did not have access to lists of all the materials purchased in a year, many staff found list-gathering difficult due to department overlap in product ordering, and some had no central management approach to develop such a list. (Most said they wish they had such lists to improve their own management processes.) Out of fifteen museums, historic houses, library archives, and private conservation studios contacted for this project, three were able to easily provide lists, two assigned interns to assemble the lists, and three took the opportunity to assemble the list themselves (one conservation lab head and two private conservators). 

We combined the material in the lists to develop a wide a view of field. Private conservators and the staff at smaller institutions and provided lists with a specific focus such as materials for textiles treatments or surface cleaning solutions; staff at larger institutions provided much broader, less-focused lists. These professionals created their lists specifically for this grant project, a significant effort on their part and a great boon to this project. Then co-PI Nunberg set about combining the lists and flagging the repeat items which indicated us to their importance and their wide use in the field, making them a priority to include in the database early on. 

The staff at all the institutions that did not have lists immediately acknowledged that assembling lists was a priority for them and their institutions to help them avoid waste in purchasing products, reduce money spend on unneeded purchases, streamline workflow, and help them practice good housekeeping. This was a clear indication that for a future implementation grant, it would be very valuable to produce a list of environmentally preferred and commonly purchased items, much like the preferred-purchases list for sustainable options in an office or a household.

LCA Beta Tool Categories

After assembling lists, co-PI Nunberg defined general categories for a beta tool:

  • Treatment: solvent cleaning and dry cleaning; inpainting; varnishes; adhesives; consolidants; glues; tools; repairs; loss compensation
  • Materials: tools; storage bottles; paper
  • Documentation: photography and computer equipment required for photo documentation and written reports
  • Preventive: pest control; art storage; environmental monitoring and management
  • Equipment: personal protection equipment; water purification system; waste disposal

We started out with these five categories, then selected the first two, Treatment and Materials, for lightly populating the beta database to see how it would work. During the June workshop at Pratt (blogpost #5 in this series), we demonstrated the use of the tool, similar to an Excel spreadsheet, in these categories. We found that the approach was sound and the curators, conservators, and instructors all saw an immediate value in access to this information.


LCA Beta Tool Use

Then co-PI Eckelman merged our categories with existing databases, linking our search terms with publicly available LCA information on our items. This made it easy for a user to go dirctly from a question at hand to the data on impacts. 

To use the tool, a collections care professional would first need to understand the parameters of LCA and choose a specific system to analyze. For example, a conservator might question the environmental and health impacts of a solvent such as cyclomethicone D4, a silicone solvent that sublimes after application. (Cremonesi:2017) The conservator would open the LCA tool, select the components of the solvent system, identify the unit amounts of solvent, and select the relevant types of environmental health impacts she or he would like to have reflected in the report. From this data, the user will be able to create graphs and charts to help visualize the types of impacts to expect, and to see areas of greatest concern in highlights. The user can also choose another set of components to research, and then compare the data from both reports before making a choice of a product or products to use. 

If we are able to continue the project through an implementation grant, the team will expand the items included in this database, make the search tool accessible online, and provide basic training on using the tool and interpreting the information for your health and the health of the planet. 

We would like to extend a special thanks to the peers who worked with us on developing the lists for populating the Beta Tool for this project and to benefit the field:

Camille Breeze, Museum Textile Services

Nancie Ravenel, Shelburne Museum

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

Previous posts (also on this website) oriented readers to the project, to the LCA process, to two Life Cycle Assessments, and a workshop at Pratt Institute to help us evaluate our planning so far. 

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. 




04-30-2019 09:43

Thanks for this work. I'm left, after reading the six blog posts, thinking about guilt- my guilt when I choose a recognized best practice knowing that there will be high costs in terms of its LCA. And from thinking of guilt I question culpability- my culpability for those LCA costs, environmental or health. I wonder where is the ethical balance in doing less for the art work and more for the environment. LCA considerations add a fourth term to the mantra "reduce, recycle, re-use": re-think.