FAIC received a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 2017 to conduct research into Life Cycle Assessment for collecting institutions. The project, “Planning a Life Cycle Assessment Library of Preventive Conservation Methods,” laid the groundwork for an online Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) library and tool that assesses the environmental and human health impact of sustaining a humanities collection. A follow-up grant from NEH in 2020 is funding further development of the library and tool. The current project is a collaboration between FAIC, Northeastern University, and the Pratt Institute, and is led by Sarah Nunberg, Sarah Sutton, Dr. Matthew Eckelman, and Dr. Eric Poiurchot. Sarah Sanchez, a doctoral student at Northeastern, has been a key researcher for the project.
Life Cycle Assessment and Conservation
At present, professionals must make too many treatment and collection management choices with little or no information about the potentially harmful impacts of those choices. It is difficult to make educated choices among solvents, gels, packing materials, and exhibition and storage approaches because there is so little information comparing materials. “Greenwashing” by product manufacturers can be confusing and misleading, with manufacturers randomly labeling products as “green” or “organic.”
Professionals have nowhere to turn to answer questions such as:
- When cleaning a surface, one might wonder if a steam-based system using minimal acetone is more sustainable than using only acetone, and consequently larger amounts of the solvent.
- For packing art, does a system that is actually sustainable, using soft protection made from recyclable material and/or non-petroleum products, exist?
- Concerning health impact of treatment methods and materials, which solvent or action has a higher health risk?
- For collection environments, which is less carbon intensive and more economically viable: running an HVAC all night or only when the relative humidity and temperature require adjustment?
LCA helps answer those questions and improve decision-making. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines LCA as “a compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs and the potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle." (ISO 14040:2006). LCA reports result from the data and conclusions gathered during an in-depth exploration of process and materials for economic comparisons, human health indications, and environmental impact assessment.
FAIC's Phase One Research Project
The initial project (2018-2019) was co-directed by Sarah Nunberg, conservator in private practice, and Sarah Sutton, principal at Sustainable Museums, with the participation of Dr. Matthew Eckelman and graduate students from Northeastern University. Other researchers included Michelle Coughlin of the Gibson House Museum, Pamela Hatchfield of the Fine Arts Museum, Boston, Michael Henry of Watson and Henry, and James Reilly of the Image Permanence Institute. Dr. Eric Pourchot provided FAIC staff guidance and support for the project.
The project investigators produced three representative Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) reports; documented the most prevalent activities, products, and events that are part of collections care and access work in museums and historic sites; produced a beta version of a tool for evaluating LCA; and developed a plan for next steps to create a robust LCA library and online tool. These new resources will allow custodians of cultural heritage to evaluate materials and approaches used to maintain collections, and enhance decision-making for care of all forms of material culture.