If cultural heritage conservation becomes sustainable

Museums as agents of cultural, social, environmental, economic sustainability
Cultural Heritage

The latest law for the protection of cultural heritage, the Code for Cultural Heritage and Landscape (Legislative Decree 42/2004), for the first time devotes a section, the second, to conservation measures specifying that: “1. the conservation of the cultural heritage is ensured through a coherent, coordinated and programmed activity of study, prevention, maintenance and restoration; 2. prevention means the set of activities suitable for limiting risk situations connected to the cultural heritage in its context (art. 29)”.

In particular, preventive conservation is defined by ICCROM – International Centre for the Study of the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage as “the set of measures and actions aimed at avoiding or minimising future deterioration or loss. They are carried out in the environment and in the context of the cultural heritage, regardless of their condition or age. These measures and actions are indirect -they do not interfere with the materials and structure of the cultural heritage and do not change their appearance”.

The 2015 UNESCO Recommendation on the Protection and Promotion of Museums states that “heritage conservation includes activities related to acquisition, collection management, including risk analysis and development of contingency planning, as well as preventive conservation and restoration of museum objects, ensuring the integrity of collections when used and preserved”.

Patrimonio artistico
Patrimonio artistico
Museums as agents of sustainability

Cultural heritage conservation activities can help museums become agents of sustainability, which is not only economic and environmental but also social and cultural. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the programme of action for people, planet and prosperity, signed in September 2015 by the governments of the 193  ONU countries, in the 11th objective, sustainable cities and communities, in point 4 underlines the need to “strengthen commitments to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage”.

ICON – Institute of Conservation, the professional body for conservators and restorers in the UK give specific attention to sustainability. As stated in its mission statement, brings together all those interested in the conservation of cultural heritage and all kinds of collections.

ICON has stated in its 2019-2021 strategy its commitment to promoting the positive role that conservation can play in inspiring and informing climate action by actively seeking ways to reduce carbon emissions and supporting its members to incorporate environmental sustainability into their professional activities. In the ICON 2011 there are, for example, some measures that can be taken by museum conservators to reduce the impact on the environment in conservation activities.

In 2014 at the IIC-International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works congress in Hong Kong and at the ICOM-CChttp://www.icom-cc.org/ International Conservation Committee conference in Melbourne delegates discussed and agreed a statement premised that ‘the issue of museum sustainability is much broader than the discussion of environmental standards and must be a key criterion for the development of museum activities.

More recently, the Getty Conservation Institute devoted its autumn 2019 newsletter to a discussion of sustainability, access and process with specific focus on collection environments. In particular, a specific working group, Sustainability in Conservation-SIC, is dedicated to promoting environmental awareness and sustainable practices in cultural heritage conservation. Of great interest are the guidelines provided by the Canadian Institute for Conservation for caring for Heritage Collections During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

John Leech (1817-1864), Cleaning the paintings at the National Gallery in London, Punch Magazine 1847
John Leech (1817-1864), Cleaning the paintings at the National Gallery in London, Punch Magazine 1847
The environmental and economic sustainability of a museum

The economic and environmental sustainability of a museum is linked to a careful care of the collections, in particular to the periodic detection and monitoring of microclimatic conditions such as temperature, relative humidity, lighting, to the prevention of attacks by organisms, such as insects and rodents, and microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, to the ordinary maintenance of the heritage and to the detection and documentation of the state of conservation. In fact, a stable microclimate must be maintained in the museum in the areas dedicated to conservation, which is fundamental to avoid the process of deterioration of the materials, favoured by the fluctuation of the temperature and relative humidity values inside the environment, deriving not only from external climatic conditions but also from internal factors such as the presence of people or the characteristics of the museum rooms and fittings. These can trigger chemical, physical and biological processes that accumulate over time and lead to the degradation of museum specimens.

In order to ensure proper conservation, museums need to assess the best microclimate conditions to maintain in exhibition halls and storage areas, carefully checking the most suitable solutions in terms of both systems and technology, assessing sustainability not only in economic terms but also in terms of energy and the environment.

Appropriate references have been provided in the Act of guidance on technical and scientific criteria and on standards for the operation and development of museums (MIBACT Decree of 10 May 2001) in which Ambit VI “Management and care of collections” underlines the need to “harmonise the two primary requirements of conservation and use of the assets” and to observe “precise criteria of preventive conservation, through the monitoring of environmental conditions, and according to principles of restoration and maintenance, in order to guarantee the safety and full usability of the artefacts. These operations must include a conservation card and the presence of highly specialised personnel, the existence of a restoration laboratory or in any case the possibility of access to laboratories outside the museum structure. Precise rules must also be established for the conditions of display, storage and handling”.

Elena Corradini

Elena Corradini

Adjunct Professor of Museology and Restoration at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, now she teaches Monumental Buildings Restoration History. She is technical-scientific evaluator of the MIUR and Coordinator of the Italian University Museums Network (www.retemuseiuniversitari.unimore.it). She was board member and Deputy President of ICOM-UMAC. From 1980 to 2006 she worked for the Ministry of Cultural Heritage as Director archaeologist in Modena, Bologna and as Manager in Rome. She is freelance journalist, author of more than 170 publications about museology, history of collecting, conservation and valorisation of cultural heritage, recently about the University heritage. She has directed restoration works and has been curator of several exhibitions.