Sustainable Collections Committee Update

National News Categories: 
Publish date: 
21 Mar 2019
Author: 
MaryJo Lelyveld

In the December 2017 edition of the AICCM Newsletter, the Sustainable Collections Committee (SCC) set out the aims and tasks of the (then) recently formed group. Their stated aims were to: progress knowledge of sustainability issues within the profession; develop policies and guidelines on behalf of the AICCM National Council to guide conservation and industry practice; promote a risk management and foresight approach in the allocation of resources for heritage and materials preservation; establish and foster collaborative working relationships with industry colleagues engaged with sustainability programs.

The three key tasks planned by the SCC for the 2018 – 2020 period were:

  1. Supporting the Environmental Guidelines Project
  2. Developing the AICCM wiki resource to collate publications and case studies
  3. Plan a program of collection care events in partnership with the Preventive SIG

Through the ongoing commitment of AICCM members who have volunteered their time and the generous support of our wider collections care industries network, we have taken a few great strides in meeting our goals (namely 1 and 3… but we’re working on 2).

AICCM Environmental Guidelines Project

As outlined in Amanda Pagliarino’s report, the ratification of the AICCM Environmental Guidelines and endorsement of the Heritage Collections Council Guidelines is a step in the right direction towards reducing energy consumption in collections, exhibition and storage areas. The new guidelines shift the focus away from setting environmental conditions based on a common convention towards guidelines with greater flexibility to adapt to local needs of climate, collections and resourcing.

The impact of the new guidelines will vary from organisation to organisation. For some, there may be little change other than a tweak to HVAC settings that deliver moderate to major cost-savings, while for others (as noted by Helen Privett, Manager of Exhibitions and Loans at Museum Victoria) it will allow them ‘to breathe a sigh of relief’ and provide greater optimism in the loan application process. In most all instances though, it will require greater engagement from conservation professionals to inform and interpret on-going monitoring of environmental conditions to assist with collection preservation programs.

Interestingly, what our collection environment survey confirmed was that few organisations were meeting what was commonly described as the default industry standard of ‘20/50’ and many were actively shifting towards the Interim AICCM Environmental Guidelines or modified, tweaked-for-local-use guidelines and that these guidelines were not being uniformly applied to collections and loans. Along with anecdotal information from discussions with colleagues, a few other interesting patterns emerged along lines of assumptions and communications:

The assumption that a single environmental standard for collections and loans was the norm

  • Discrepancy of environmental guidelines set by lending organisations is very common. Even though there is a perceived standard, anyone dealing with loans from multiple lenders can attest that in most instances, requested environmental guidelines will vary and in some instances may not even overlap
  • Few organisations were applying the same environmental parameters for their collections and loans. In almost all instances, institutions reverted back to narrower temperature and RH ranges when loaning material [1]

 ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place’ (George Bernard Shaw)

  • Based on feedback about the revised AICCM Environmental Guidelines, it would seem that communication around determining environmental parameters for collections and loans within organisations is not always happening. Specialist/bench materials conservators are not always aware of what guidelines are being applied within their organisation and so in some instances may default to an assumed industry standard over amended organisational parameters
  • Changes to guidelines are not effectively being communicated across departments, for example, whilst conservators may be advocating for revised in-house standard/s, default parameters with narrower temperature and RH bands were being written into loan agreements by other departments
  • Conservators are reliant on Building Automation System (BAS) data provided by facilities staff without a clear understanding of the limitations of the data and what can realistically be inferred from it

In addition to communication about the process of setting, managing and interpreting environmental guidelines are the practical aspects of implementing them. This may include:

  • Communicating the changes to environmental guidelines to relevant stakeholders across the organisation from executive through to collection care colleagues and relevant contractors
  • In consultation with building services and HVAC technicians, mapping transition pathways from one set of conditions to another while staying within the recommended % fluctuations and, where relevant, assessing and planning opportunities for seasonal adjustment for further financial gains and carbon footprint adjustment
  • Working with exhibition designers and facilities staff to build opportunities for passive environmental controls and microclimates to meet the environmental condition needs of  sensitive materials and/or loan requirements

The SCC wishes to acknowledge the commitment and investment of Amanda Pagliarino in carrying out this project and the support of the Getty ‘Managing Collection Environments’ team in providing knowledge frameworks and research time for this project.

Managing Risks to Collections Conference

The response to the 3-day Managing Risks to Collections Conference was overwhelmingly positive and you can read reviews of the conference in the March 2019 issue of the AICCM eNews. From an SCC-perspective, the conference provided a platform to shift narratives about conservation practice from a strict preventive approach to one that includes discussion about long-term viability and context-specific adaptation. Dr Penny Whetton’s keynote presentation on Regional climate change projections and assessing impact helped to highlight this shift.

While discussions around the environmental conditions of material preservation have focused on the impact of change to objects—with much research carried out by conservators and scientists to determine the extent of such change and damage over the last few decades—it is only in the last few years that our professional gaze has shifted to whether or not we can actually keep these conditions into the future. As noted by Vicki Humphrey, Director, Preservation Services, National Library of Australia at the MRC Conference, ‘if it’s not sustainable then risk mitigation cannot be effective’.

The CSIRO has undertaken decades of research into climate change in Australia, and the Climate Change Analogues component provides a simplified tool to frame the extent of environmental change at various cities across Australia under a range of climate change scenarios. For example, in the instance of Melbourne under the low-mid range emissions scenario[2] Melbourne’s average temperatures will increase by over 1°C with no expected change to rainfall by 2050[3]. However, under the high range emissions scenario within the same 31-year timeframe average daily temperature will be almost 2°C higher with a climate more in line with towns like Taree and Grafton in coastal northern NSW. Another, 50 years and Melbourne is looking a lot like central northern NSW and Sydney more like Brisbane. So will we still be so committed to our current environmental guidelines for collections if most of our climates have shifted from temperate to sub-tropical and grassland (hot dry summer, cold winter) climate zones? Perhaps let us look to colleagues in these climates to give us some direction on how we should answer this and, with one eye on climate change trends, adjust our guidelines, practices and procedures incrementally and accordingly.

AICCM Sustainable Collections wiki

‘Wikis are ideal for building up a "big picture" based on multiple perspectives, and for capturing information that is evolving or still being agreed.’ (MindTools)

And so to the SCC wiki. In its most basic form, the SCC wiki is intended to be a shared content site around sustainable collection concerns, but it is also intended to be a platform for new ways of aggregating, disseminating, validating and improving the discussion around how to effect sustainable preservation practices. The AICCM currently has a range of communication platforms dedicated to sharing knowledge—the peer-reviewed Bulletin at one end and ‘newsy’ Facebook at the other—however we are lacking a platform that documents a common knowledge base especially where sustainable collection care is concerned.

This is particularly relevant in Australia given the shifts in academic training over the last few decades. As outlined in the paper presented by Ainslee Meredith, PhD candidate at UoM at the MRC Conference (co-authored by Nicole Tse), conservation students are given evaluative frameworks to measure the environmental impact of their treatments. Similarly, issues of cultural sustainability and what Nicole Tse described as the ‘four agencies’ of Objects, People, Place and Time in her paper presented at IIC Turin, are critical to framing contemporary conservation practice. While this languaging of practice may seem novel or peculiar to those who trained through the Canberra course it is very much at the core of a more holistic approach to sustainability.

As highlighted in Amanda’s MRC presentation, Professor Colin Pearson was as an advocate for sustainability not as a stand-alone virtue but also as a pragmatic approach to effective long-term conservation solutions. This is a sentiment echoed by Dr Ian McLeod’s 2014 ICOM-CC closing address as he highlighted the low-cost and practical solutions implemented by many local conservators as they sought to apply strategies that deal with the poorly-funded projects, hard-to-access-specialist-materials and the community-focused context that conservators in Australia commonly find themselves in.

The wiki will be a chance for the AICCM membership to define what sustainable collections care means in the broadest sense as it relates to environment, economic, community and culture. It will be a chance to not only present emerging information to help inform what sustainability, resilience, adaptation etc. means and requires (thereby responding to the calls for environmental scanning by the profession) but also to celebrate the projects and case studies that out members have been involved with over the years. If you are interested in being involved, please contact Ainslee Meredith or MaryJo Lelyveld.

MaryJo Lelyveld
Sustainable Collections Committee Convenor


[1] One exception to this being the National Gallery of Victoria, whose loaning environmental guidelines have a wider temperature and RH range due to advocacy by the Senior Exhibitions Conservator to ensure access to the sate collection by regional and smaller galleries.

[2] RCP 4.5 which is one of the four Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) or greenhouse gas trajectories adopted by the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) for climate modelling.

[3] Maximum Consensus statistics provided