By Emma Hartman & Natalya Swanson
Conservators Combating Climate Change is a series of transparent conversations featuring preservation professionals who are actively addressing the climate crisis and its threat to cultural heritage. In each episode, hosts Natalya Swanson and Emma Hartman unpack aspects of this complex issue and discuss what sustainability means in regard to conservation-restoration practice.
This podcast is produced by the American Institute for Conservation’s Emerging Conservation Professionals Network’s (AIC-ECPN) Digital Platform Co-Officers. Season one was generously supported by the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware in honor of Bruno Pouliot.
The climate crisis is widely considered to be one the most significant and urgent threats to humanity and cultural heritage that we will face in our lifetimes. Since the causes are as complicated and multifaceted as the consequences, it is challenging to know how to begin taking action.
AIC-ECPN produces digital programs throughout the year geared at early career conservators, which are often relevant for preservation professionals at every stage of their career. Since the content is curated by current officers, our shared interest in sustainability motivated us to dedicate the spring 2020 webinar to discussing the climate crisis and its intersection with preservation practice. We struggled, however, to see how this programming would take form: the broad and complicated topic necessitated a discussion-based format, which is difficult to achieve with our traditional webinar platform. It was after Natalya attended the Smithsonian’s Stemming the Tide symposium in Washington, D.C., and heard the speakers’ resounding message of empowerment, that we were inspired to produce a podcast instead.
The benefits of podcasting are multifold. The shorter, conversation-centered format permits us to engage with more topics and guest speakers than a fixed-length webinar, and the pre-recorded episodes increase accessibility through closed captioning provided on the AIC’s YouTube channel. It also allows community members to listen at their own time, which was particularly important considering that the programming was scheduled to be released in late spring, while most of our audience was sheltering in place. We know how daunting it is to discuss the climate crisis, and we were especially concerned that discussing a second global crisis during the pandemic might overwhelm, rather than empower, our community. Thus, when we began planning for the first season, our primary goal was to host conversations that would inspire action through transparent dialogue with professionals at various stages of their careers. Addressing the climate crisis requires every sector of our society to be critically examined through the lens of sustainability, compassion, and equity, and we feel it is vital that all community members, regardless of their title or level of experience, feel included in our discussions and empowered to enact change.
Though ECPN has had a formal webinar program since 2012, this is the first podcast project for ECPN and for the AIC as a whole. While we are both enthusiastic consumers of the medium, neither of us had ever produced a podcast, and so we faced a steep learning curve at the start of the project. Fortunately, the rise in podcast popularity over the past several years has resulted in an abundance of available resources and information about how to get started as a podcaster. After a brief foray into the world of audio recording and producing, we decided on a fairly low-tech approach using the smartphone application Anchor. The application offers a free, user-friendly platform to record, edit, and distribute the series to common podcasting platforms (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, etc.) all in one interface. Anchor also permitted us to record from multiple locations at once, which was critical, given social distancing guidelines and our speakers’ locations across the world.
Following consultation with fellow ECPN officers, we structured the first season around four guests, each invited to share how the changing climate has affected their professional practice. Since this program replaced our spring webinar, we reallocated funds usually reserved for the webinar to provide a modest honorarium to each invited guest.
We opened the season with a short trailer to introduce ourselves and our goal “to engage and empower a broad audience of collection care professionals and to inspire bottom-up change in labs and cultural institutions.” We also explained that the exploratory series was intended to gauge audience interest in the topic and we welcomed feedback and input from community members.
To establish the foundations of what sustainability is, and is not, we welcomed Henry McGhie to the program. Henry is an ecologist, established museum professional, and principal of the consultancy Curating Tomorrow, and he openly shared knowledge he has gained from working at the intersection of sustainability and institutional museum culture, as well as his strategies for integrating the Sustainable Development Goals into established museum practices.
Next we spoke with Madeline (Maddie) Cooper, an early career conservator and current graduate fellow at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, about her experience working in South Florida where the effects of climate change are felt on a daily basis. In the episode, Maddie shared how this training shaped her professional trajectory and how she is directing her graduate studies to focus on preventive conservation and disaster preparedness.
The nature of podcasting and its episodic format also allowed us to continually assess and modify our programming in real time. In May, following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, and the subsequent resurgence of protests and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we joined our community in reflecting on the injustices of systemic racism and reexamined the environmental movement through the lens of civil equity. In a special mini-episode, Natalya shared what we learned about the intersectional nature of climate justice. We examined the ways in which climate change and political responses to disaster recovery cause disproportionate harm to marginalized communities, and the renewable energy sector’s potential for leveling wealth inequality caused by racial disparities, while also saving institutions money and improving community well-being. Admittedly, it was challenging to follow through with our commitment to positive programming for this episode. Feedback from our listeners reassured us that they appreciated this episode and shared commitment to antiracist work.
Creating this mini-episode, entitled “Why Climate Justice = Social Justice,” shaped the rest of the season’s programming. When we spoke to Francis Lukezic, objects conservator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, about her work on the Nunnaleq Project in Southwest Alaska, we centered the conversation around the native community whose heritage Francis helped to preserve. With our final guest speaker, Kate Fugett, objects conservator at the American Museum of Natural History, we spoke candidly about the challenges of dedicating time to intersectional environmentalism work while maintaining a full-time job at a busy, exhibition-driven institution. Kate is presently forming a coalition of cultural heritage professionals committed to taking strategic action to address the crisis, and our shared commitment to transparent dialogue and resource sharing made for an exciting and informative discussion. We all left feeling energized to commit to further collective action.
Throughout the season, community members reached out to us to express thanks, give support, and offer suggestions for future guest speakers. Elated with the positive response, and the nearly one thousand plays from our international base of listeners, we publicly committed to producing a second season with new Digital Platforms Co-Officer Marie Desrochers, to be released in spring 2021. We ended the season by sharing reflections on what we learned from the experience so far, recalling how overwhelmed we felt when we began producing the podcast—the uncertainty of the global pandemic paired with the certainty of increased climate-induced disasters in our future had left us feeling helpless.
Developing and implementing this podcast project was challenging, but it was also deeply empowering. We recognize now that we need not sit alone with our climate grief; rather, there is great power in joining the growing community of cultural heritage professionals engaging with issues of climate justice. We now know that meaningful change begins by recognizing the agency each of us already has. We invite you to join us as we continue to explore these issues in our next season.
Emma Hartman is the Antoinette King Fellow at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Prior to graduate school, she held positions in conservation at The New York Public Library and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, where she was a Fulbright-Nehru Student Fellow. She received a BA in chemistry and the history of art from Amherst College in 2017.
Natalya Swanson is a Brooklyn-based objects/contemporary art conservator and current Mellon Fellow in Objects Conservation at the Brooklyn Museum. She received her MSc in art conservation from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and her BA in art history from the University of South Florida. She has trained at the University of Amsterdam, Voices in Contemporary Art/Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Cleveland Museum of Art, The Ringling Museum, and private studios in the Bronx, NY; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, IL; and Miami, FL.
(See the full article in the October-November 2020 "News in Conservation" Issue 80, p. 52-55)