Climate change: conservation education is key to this agenda

User menu

"We take advantage of our geographic condition to generate clean energy through a system of 1,209 solar panels that contribute to 50% of the energy consumption of the institution since its installation in 2018." Ruahidy Lombert. Image of the Archivo Centro León Jimenes solar panels (Top view) 2018. Image courtesy of Ruahidy Lombert/Centro León.

By Marina Herriges

I cannot express how delighted I am to see this special issue about sustainability with so many remarkable contributions. In response to heading in this challenging direction, we have been confronting our professional status quo. Most importantly, we are generating debate about the subject, including everyone in the discussion, creating awareness and considering possible solutions.

For this issue I opted to focus the content of the column on another subject that I am very interested in: conservation education. I strongly believe that education is key to addressing climate change. Here I am referring not only to formal education, but also to the responsibility we, as professionals, have towards others who are coming into the profession from formal training, work experience, apprenticeship or any other perspective. I also include our responsibility for the communities we inhabit. There are so many ways we can share and facilitate knowledge as well as learn from other perspectives.

The question that has been on my mind is: What kind of education do we want? We of course need to learn practical conservation skills, but I believe we need more professionals who are also critical thinkers, who are keen on challenging the status quo, willing to share their knowledge and who keep actively learning.

I am involved as a research assistant on a project which involves sustainability and conservation education; it takes place at the University of Glasgow. This project is called “Em-bedding environmental sustainability for active learning and student engagement in textile conservation”, with Karen Thompson ACR as the principal investigator and funded by the Learning and Teaching Development Fund, University of Glasgow. The project has been a wonderful opportunity to experience first hand the co-creation of content with the students. It is rewarding to observe the students as they gain confidence in identifying problems within climate change. They use critical thinking and creativity to develop solutions and integrate them into their conservation practices. But this project is more than building knowledge and expertise in integrating climate change solutions to conservation; the students learn to be actively engaged with the profession, identify issues and bring different experiences to build relevant knowledge.

In this issue I invited four educators from around the world to give their views on the relationship between conservation education and climate change. Short introductions: Fiona Graham is a lecturer at Queen´s University in Ontario, Canada where she teaches preventive conservation; Ruahidy Lombert is an art conservation and restoration lecturer at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo in Dominican Republic; Nicole Tse is a senior lecturer at The Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, The University of Melbourne in Australia; and Justine Wuebold is a research associate in the Embedding Sustainability in Conservation Education Initiative at the UCLA/Getty Program in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage.

All four bring different perspectives to the subject, not only due to their professional backgrounds but also due to the areas of the globe where they are based. In the end, each offers tips for how to embed climate change into conservation education.

Do get in touch if you have something to add to the conversation. I am very keen on hearing from our readers.


*Fiona Graham: As human beings, conservators have a moral responsibility to keep our planet liveable. Actions taken as part of conservation practice should further this goal rather than contribute to environmental degradation.

*Ruahidy Lombert: There is a logical bridge between the preservation of cultural heritage and sustainable environmental development. This bridge leads to the promotion and strengthening of strategies and policies, ensuring their transmission to present and future generations for their knowledge and enjoyment. By sharing the achievements and experiences of scientists and technicians we will produce suitable practices and strategies that respect the environment. Conservators must take into account the developments and innovations in this field. This is not only a technological issue but also a social, structural and economic issue that challenges our status quo.

*Nicole Tse: [Environmental sustainability is] absolutely necessary; conservation is all about sustainability, and the two are intrinsically linked. When we conserve something, we are supporting a living community’s access and connection to culture while the materials alone are embodied energy. These are sustainable actions symbolic of the four pillars: social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability. As conservation is about people, culture, identity and connections, our work naturally supports communities, their citizens and our changing world. World challenges such as climate change, environmental uncertainties, disasters, human displacement, migration and contested histories are factors that concern us all and in which conservation has a role. This means engaging in big-picture discussions, sharing our knowledge to support discussions about identity and using our skills to provide access to material culture are critical actions.

*Justine Wuebold: Despite our diversity, every culture has its roots in nature. In this way caring for culture is akin to caring for our planet. Climate change is no longer looming on the horizon but is present in all of our lives. One cannot go about their professional lives ignoring the impact conservation of cultural heritage has on the planet, especially with this new normal we face of changing weather patterns and seasons of destruction. Sooner rather than later, conservators will be called upon for their resilience and adaptability in conserving heritage for highly vulnerable regions and communities. I believe every job is a climate job, but conservators can play an essential role with training in both scientific analysis and the humanities to build bridges between disciplines and foster dialogue between communities.


*Fiona Graham: For conservators to make better choices for the environment, our training should include learning about the environmental impact of preventive conservation and conservation treatment decisions as well as the impact of these measures on the material characteristics and intangible values of heritage objects and on the degree to which institutions can meet their public mandates. Working within this context will benefit the conservation profession as well as the planet since it promotes the perception that we are part of the solution rather than a group with a separate agenda.

*Ruahidy Lombert: Universities can encourage research in the field of conservation science to identify common problems and develop initiatives that contribute to the formulation of new substances, products and the design of equipment. This allows a sustainable relationship with the environment, adopting a more responsible and considerate approach to the environment. This also strengthens and improves the links between conservation science and climate science for an interdisciplinary approach.

*Nicole Tse: Although environmental sustainability has been a major focus for conservation globally, I have always approached sustainability from a more inclusive point of view. It has always seemed anomalous not to do so and to single out environmental sustainability alone. I think this makes sense given that conservation is about people, values and culture, and that every decision made—or action taken—is grounded by situated contexts. So, anything we do in conservation to support sustainability agendas and actions should likewise be based on the relationships between the social, cultural, economic and environmental; otherwise we are operating in isolation.

*Justine Wuebold: I see this shift in focus in the classroom as a way to rethink our systems and meet new challenges the field is facing. By embedding sustainable practices and perspectives into the program, students will carry practical, holistic and adaptable skills into their institutions and private practices. They will feel empowered to make ethical and cost-saving decisions by sharing a common understanding and language in working with facilities managers, sustainability officers and other specialists in building and environmental sustainability. Sustainability is naturally a very social field, so it also promotes collaborative efforts, respect for the perspectives of co-workers in allied professions and the sharing of knowledge to rethink and redesign antiquated systems.


*Fiona Graham: Within our program, I am responsible for introducing conservation students to foundational concepts such as the value of conservation, the role of conservators and conservation scientists, conservation ethics and for teaching preventive conservation. Environmental sustainability considerations have crept into my teaching over the years—starting with the obvious carbon emission impacts of environmental guidelines, lighting systems and building design—and have made their way into all aspects of conservation theory and practice. In the main assignment for my course, students are asked to consider environmental, cultural and economic sustainability when making recommendations for improving preservation conditions at a fictional museum. At one point I assumed that having a stand-alone seminar on sustainability would also be crucial, but current research shows that integrating sustainability into the usual topics is a more effective approach.

*Ruahidy Lombert: This issue has become an increasingly relevant concern for the conservation of cultural heritage training. Explaining the harmfulness and the risk derived from the use of certain products, including their effects on health and the environment, is part of the content that I address together with my students. Committing to the sustainable reuse of materials, toxic substances and the processes adopted to promote the conservation and preservation of heritage must be a shared responsibility for all of us who aspire to protect the planet from climate change.

*Nicole Tse: We embed sustainable thinking in all subjects. It has been more straightforward to realise environmentally sustainable actions in the program through our lab-based subjects. Mitigation strategies such as energy and waste reduction; material re-use and recycling; green chemical use and the circular economy of conservation materials, their production, use and impact are examined through doing waste audits, setting up their own sustainable goals, moving towards greener chemicals and mapping material pipelines. More challenging are adaptive strategies that embrace the cultural, social and economic sustainable impacts, but our two field-based subjects—one in remote Australia taught by Indigenous Gija Elders from the Warmun community and one in the Philippines—really draw out these issues into practice. In both cases, we are able to examine cultural materials held outside the major collecting institutions and in small communities, to expand context, provide new insights and consider the impact of conservation more broadly. 

*Justine Wuebold: The program started its sustainability journey by evaluating the lab spaces to make sustainable improvements, involving students in reporting on problems that can be addressed. Ki Culture's Caitlin Southwick was invited to give a summer workshop on sustainability to provide an overview of the topic as a separate module. Then the program was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to explore ways of embedding sustainability into the course curriculum, which is how I was hired to investigate possible avenues for integrating these concepts. My research emphasized the need for programs to integrate sustainability throughout courses, rather than as a separate module, for a consistent reminder of how it impacts all aspects of conservation.  We are including key competencies of sustainability education, such as systems thinking, future thinking, and traditional knowledge as part of the interactive exercises and assignments in conservation courses and as foundational concepts.


Marina Herriges works as a textile conservator at Textile Conservation Limited in Bristol, UK. She holds an MPhil in textile conservation from the University of Glasgow. She currently researches embedding environmental sustainability in conservation education at the Kelvin Centre for Conservation and Cultural Heritage Research at the University of Glasgow. Marina has worked in a range of different heritage and conservation organizations in Brazil, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.

(Read the article in the April-May 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 89, p. 52-56)

Home Page Intro: 
I cannot express how delighted I am to see this special issue about sustainability with so many remarkable contributions. In response to heading in this challenging direction, we have been confronting our professional status quo. Most importantly, we are generating debate about the subject, including everyone in the discussion, creating awareness and considering possible solutions.
Home Page Suppress Text: