Museum-Quality and Sustainable
Back to Sustainable Practices Homepage
Museum-Quality and Sustainable: Questioning how we choose materials
By Christian Hernandez, Sustainability Committee alumni member
This page is based on an article published in the September 2017 VOL 42:5 issue of AIC News
In light of AIC’s upcoming conference theme – Material Matters 2018 – let us explore what makes a material museum-quality and whether sustainability is something you look for in the materials you use.
How we choose a material is complex, based on factors such as predictions of how long a material will last, the scrutiny of specific components, and budget. This article discusses none of that, focusing on the preconceived notions of a term we use within our profession, while assuming the other person understands what we mean.
What makes a material museum-quality? Suffice to say that the term museum-quality, much like the term archival-quality and their -grade counterparts, are used broadly, and many definitions of them exist in conservation and allied fields. Rather than start the discussion by examining and comparing definitions, let’s start by acknowledging that it is “… a generic term that suggests long-term stability but there is no industry standard definition” (Wellman 2011). If there is no widely accepted definition, what do we understand this term to mean?
Taken literally, museum-quality simply indicates that the material can be used within a museum; however, when considered within the context of conservation and collection care, the term implies that conservators can use these materials because they are safe for long-term preservation. Nonetheless, does this term—sometimes called conservation-quality or conservation-grade—really clarify anything?
Perhaps examining how we choose and use museum-quality materials can help clarify what we mean by using these words; materials choice is guided by the desirability of specific products and their properties. Sometimes we use a material that has an opposing quality to that of another material we use. For example, some textiles are best stored in unbuffered and pH-neutral tissue, while others are best stored in buffered and slightly alkaline tissue; hence, a museum-quality material is not that it is either one or the other, since both have their benefits. Likewise, both buffered and unbuffered tissues are ideally lignin-free, but describing another material such as polyethylene foam this way is inaccurate. We can also eliminate other qualities as not being intrinsic to all museum-quality materials. Terms such as undyed, unbleached, non-ionic, water-soluble, transparent, etc., do not make a material universally attractive for our work, but two often-used terms—pure and virgin—are less easily discredited.
Used as a selling point, the terms pure and virgin, as well as language such as “not from recycled material,” don’t offer quantitative or specific qualitative clarity as to why a material is desirable. Instead, they feed into our social bias that things previously used are contaminated and somehow less clean. Since most of these materials are processed using chemicals and machines, the term pure is relative (at best) and deceiving (at worst), and is not useful in describing what characterizes it as a museum-quality material. The term virgin is more easily defined as a material that has not been used before, implying that it has been made from new resources. But when used to describe materials preferred by conservators, it falls short in clarity and feeds into our assumptions, hopes, and biases. Conservators often seek materials without undesirable additives, such as certain plasticizers or optical whitening agents, yet such pure and virgin qualities are not limited to products made from new resources. They can be found in sustainable products as well.
Ultimately, what do we want museum-quality to mean? Of all the materials used by conservators (from pigments and surfactants, to hygrometers and boards), the unifying quality is long-term chemical stability. This is desirable since it is safer for use near or on objects, as they will not contribute additional pollutants and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to the environment and will not auto degrade. But defining this as the sole quality of a museum-quality material would be difficult for the following reasons:
- It is difficult, if not impossible, to guarantee that a material is safe for use near or on the artifacts in
- We often trust that if others like us use a material, then it is safe for use by us.
On Guarantees and Trust
It is impossible to be universally knowledgeable and up-to-date about every material. While technical information is accessible, from the widely available (such as Safety Data Sheets–SDS) to the specific (such as the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry standards), other resources often lead us to select one material over another without a sense of guarantee. Arguably the closest we have to conservation approval or guarantee is Oddy testing, which has its shortcomings. There is no standard way to conduct an Oddy test, although Green and Thickett’s 1995 article “Testing materials for use in the storage and display of antiquities: A revised methodology” has tried to promote one standard. Furthermore, the resulting information is not conclusive; test results must be interpreted and do not show the effect of the tested material on anything other than copper, silver, or lead. In addition, these tests are out of reach for many institutions, due to the need for specialized equipment, tools, and testing materials, and the cost of labor in conducting a multi-week test (twice for good measure, and again with each new delivery).
Most often, we trust a material is good enough because another conservator or institution recommends and uses it. Considering that some materials used by conservators in the past have failed with the passage of time, we are often skeptical about new materials and refrain from adding them to the informal list of materials we trust until we garner enough reports about successful use of them within our community. Yet in making choices for treatment, we press on to explore new technologies and techniques in a way that we don’t for new materials. In essence, we are placing value on some kinds of innovation over others. The use of new materials to replace those currently and widely used is a difficult, slow, and reluctant transition, and only occurs after a few community members test and try something new and untried.
On Sustainability and Ethics
As conservators, it is our duty to ensure we do right by the objects in our care. Some may feel that when defining a museum-quality material, long-term chemical stability is at the forefront, and environmental sustainability (while honorable and important) is not part of the definition. But if we pride ourselves on having high standards it should be noted that even the American Institute for Conservation’s Codes of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice states, “XII. The conservation professional shall practice in a manner that minimizes personal risks and hazards to co-workers, the public, and the environment.”
The characteristics and preferences we use in making materials choices should be based on a value system that reflects our best intentions, but the burden of knowledge to make better choices is ours to bear. Shifting accountability for our actions from the collective to the individual will make it possible for each of us to choose materials based on a wider set of parameters. Make the values you hold professionally match the values you hold personally. If you hope the materials you select are sustainable, then compare their environmental sustainability in relation to other available options. If you don’t consider the available options to be sustainable enough, do the research and testing into which other materials might have the characteristics that you value. Ask questions, change how you work and what you work with, and most importantly share your knowledge. After all, the beginning of the tenth point in AIC’s Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice is “the conservation professional shall contribute to the evolution and growth of the profession.”
Where We Go from Here
We pride ourselves on having in-depth knowledge of the objects we care for, but we do not always extend this careful consideration to the materials we use when conserving them. Rather than knowing why we use specific materials, we know more about why we don’t use others; it is easier to spot the failure of long-term chemical stability than it is to prove its success. This is the clearest obstacle in switching to more sustainable materials, but there is another reason this should be addressed: our value-laden myopia about materials choices, held near and dear to our lab coats, leads us to exclude considering environmental sustainability. For example, we make the environment safer for our objects without thinking about improving the environments that created them (be they ecosystems or cultures). These values, for better or worse, are also aligned with the values we hold as a society; if we cared as people about the global environment, then we would care as conservators about it, too.
So, is sustainability part of what makes a material museum-quality? Perhaps we won’t have a clear answer until we reach a tipping point where more conservators care about it than don’t.
At the end of this discussion, it is worth reiterating that sustainability in material choice is intrinsically tied to concern about the preservation of past, present, and future of culture. When we define museum-quality materials in the context of preservation needs or solutions, we need to keep in mind: “there is little point in preserving collections for posterity if survival of future generations is under threat or the cultural heritage is at risk from environmental catastrophes.” (Brophy and Wylie, 2006)
Brophy, S., and Wylie E. 2006. It’s Easy Being Green – Museums and the Green Movement. Museum News 85(5): 38-45.
Green, L.R., and Thickett, D. 1995. Testing Materials for Use in the Storage and Display of Antiquities: A Revised Methodology. Studies in Conservation 40 (3): 145-152.
Wellman, H. (2011). Storage Environments: Packing & Labeling Materials. Power Point Presentation, 8. Accessed August 2017. www.sha.org/documents/research/packing.pdf.