Session 6: Sustainability and Climate Change

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At the midway point of the week we considered projects from around the world that are looking holistically at what sustainability means for museums and their collections, be this environmentally, socially or economically.

To begin, we travelled to Rhode Island, USA with Patricia Miller who presented Geothermal Technology for Sustainable Climate Control in an Historic House Museum introducing the large-scale project at The Breakers historic house that revived the old environmental control infrastructure with new geothermal technology. Acknowledgement that the existing convection heat system was not providing adequate control for the 19th-century Italianate style building, interiors and collections, that showcase America’s gilded age, was combined with concern over future fuel costs. So just as the original design for the house embraced new technology, it was incorporated into the 21st-century too. Patricia described the technology and collaborative work undertaken in the house and gardens, using photographs and archive plans making it easy to visualise the project. Questions from the attendees asked about the choice to use thermostatic rather than humidistatic control, the current system has a relative humidity set point and control could be added in the future.

I really liked how the goals for the project focussed on removing the extremes of temperature and relative humidity, while wishing to preserve and integrate with the existing system and how these adaptations have been included in the interpretation of the house.

Francesca Guiducci then introduced us to Finding Sustainability in the Desert: Conservation of the Archaeological Site of Dangeil, Sudan, and Associated Collections. The Berber-Abidiya project is a 20-year collaboration between the Sudan National Corporation for Antiquities and Museum and the British Museum. It is focussed on physically preserving the remains of a 1st century AD Amun Temple and enhancing its significance in a manner that addresses sustainability at technical intervention, management and local community levels. Guiducci explains how the programme utilises local knowledge and materials as well as developing conservation skills in the local communities to overcome the challenges of the site, in the short and long-term. Questions focussed on the use of recording techniques such as 3D modelling, which is being used alongside photogrammetry to aid understanding of the archaeology. Annabella also asked about the consolidation process, here the focus is on structural stabilisation, using modern bricks and lime mortar to support the walls.

Back to Scotland for our final talk, The Old and the New: 21st-century Considerations for Buildings Housing Collections from Dr. Isobel Griffin and Jacqueline Ridge, considering the decision-making criteria and processes required for the design of collections care and storage in the 21st-century. They argue that currently financial and environmental sustainability are prioritised over social aspects. I liked that a wide range of examples were used to look at how these aspects have been balanced by other organisations, as it showed how these solutions can be tailored to the circumstances of different organisations. Jacqueline used the UN Sustainable Development Goals to look at sustainability through a social lens and show how these have been incorporated into the National Galleries Scotland’s performance indicators. As well as asking us to rethink the idea of the store as a ‘resting place’ and think how they can become social spaces. The questions allowed expansion on these topics, whereby the use of public money was seen as a driver for researching and developing a project that delivered more broadly than just environmental sustainability, focussing on the “legacy benefit” (Jacqueline) that the project will have socially.

Amber Kerr (session chair) asked all the speakers how they relay their sustainability information to external audiences. For Francesca this knowledge is diffused by involvement in local and global communities and publications. Patricia noted that currently environmental information wasn’t available to the public, though the geothermal systems have also been used and interpreted at two other sites as well as The Breakers project. National Galleries Scotland similarly noted limited public display of sustainability information, but that this was a key discussion point with local communities.

Author Byline:

Katherine List is a postgraduate student at Cardiff University.