Sustainability and resilience have become key concerns in contemporary society. The effects of human impacts on the environment and increasing weather extremes, reduced energy security in an increasingly technologically-reliant world, and economic pressures as local and global networks transition to new infrastructure and social systems have become direct concerns for those responsible for collections care. In addition, conservators and collection managers are required to have a greater awareness of the systemic impacts of such things as funding cycles and philanthropic support to plan resourcing, application opportunities that new technologies offer for innovation and efficiencies, and the shifting needs of audiences to ensure relevance and facilitate intellectual, physical and emotional access to collections.

At the heart of conservation practice is ensuring that our cultural heritage is accessible to local and global audiences, both now and into the future where the values and techniques for engaging with cultural material may be different to the present. In order to ensure the preservation of past, present and emerging cultural legacies, the conservation profession must develop a greater self-awareness of the impact of its activities and its responsibility for ensuring that access to our cultural resource and legacy is equitable, responsive to emerging contexts and meaningful and relevant to stakeholders now and into the future.

This wiki has been developed as a common knowledge base to support AICCM members as they orient themselves in this space and respond to changes in theory and practice as they emerge. By aggregating information, key literature and local case studies, this Sustainable Collections wiki offers a learning hub for conservators to share ideas, knowledge and experiences as they deal with growing sustainability issues and plan transition strategies for collections care within their organisations and practices.

This wiki takes a holistic approach to sustainability for collections care and its management but anchors itself in local case studies and research to help support the growing community of conservators committed to sustainable practices. Each topic is divided into three sections:

  • an introductory paragraph that provides a very broad overview of the topic
  • sub-themes with recommended references to orient readers within that topic
  • case studies by AICCM members who have carried/are carrying out local projects or research in this area

As with any wiki, its success is dependent on the contributions of its members in their capacity to communicate and learn, so we invite you to join us in this discussion by submitting your edits, additions and critiques of the content to:

MaryJo Lelyveld and Ainslee Meredith

AICCM Sustainable Collections Committee

Sustainable Collections: thoughts on definitions

Sustainability can mean different things to different people. Much of the literature relating to sustainability in conservation has focused on the environmental aspects of sustainability such as greening chemicals and reducing the carbon footprint of preservation activities. The museums sector definition of cultural heritage and collections sustainability draws on the World Commission on Environment and Development definition includes the three pillars of economic, social and environmental sustainability. A fourth pillar of cultural sustainability has been adopted in some federal and local policy arenas (See for example the United Cities and Local Government’s Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development and Point 6 of the United Nations Environment Program’s Melbourne Principles for Sustainable Cities (2002)). There is also growing interest by the international cultural heritage industry in aligning its advocacy and operational strategies with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

These pillars or systems are interrelated (or nested). For example, collection material has various values or significance ascribed to it that functions at the personal, familial and local collections through to state, national and global scales that may change over time. The role of the conservator in supporting sustainable collections is contributing knowledge and skills generated through research and practice to help inform strategies for present and future access to collections. Sustainable collections might be defined as collections which are managed to optimise knowledge generation, cultural understanding and value and skill transmission whilst aiming to reduce adverse effects on the environment and cultural material asset. (ML May 2019)

Why is sustainable collections care important?

Communicating sustainable practices have become a key strategic part of annual reporting for many collecting organisations. For smaller collections, adopting a sustainable collections approach is important to ensure that resources are most effectively deployed and that collection preservation outcomes aim to maximise benefits for existing and potential present and future stakeholders. This requires an understanding of current operational and social dynamic and interest in emerging issues and maturing trends that affect conservation and collections preservation practice.

A sustainable collections approach acknowledges that there are many demands made of collection material over its lifetime, demands that may sometimes be in contrast with one another. It engages and cooperates with stakeholders and domain specialists (such as curators, collection managers, technicians, community and craftspeople) to integrate systemic (economic, social, environmental and professional) and personal (cognitive, emotional and spiritual) concerns in developing collection preservation options. (ML May 2020)

  1. Further Reading

Adams, E. (2010). Towards Sustainability Indicators for Museums in Australia.

This study provides a general overview of sustainability and reporting practices in Australian collecting organisations and proposes a pilot model of 12 suggested core indicators based on four pillars of sustainability: economic, social, environmental and cultural.

O’Dwyer, D. 2010, ‘The contribution of conservators to sustainability at the National Maritime Museum, UK’, Studies in conservation, vol. 55, pp. 155-158.

Discusses the implementation of a long-term and holistic approach to sustainability across several museum sites. Areas of focus include energy efficiency measures; green materials; building design; and initiatives for staff around transport, waste and recycling.

Pearlstein, E. 2017, ‘Teaching Sustainable Collection Care’, Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 56 (2), pp. 113-125.

Presents some of the challenges of teaching sustainable collection care in graduate conservation courses and reports on a project at UCLA where students were taught to calculate building energy data alongside environmental data to craft sustainable recommendations.

Merriman, N. 2008, ‘Museum collections and sustainability’, Cultural Trends, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 3-21.

Presents an argument for the necessity of deaccessioning collection objects to improve the sustainability of collections.