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Friday, May 30 • 8:30am - 9:00am
(Textiles Session) Managing sustainability of light sensitive collections

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Can some of the concepts that emerge from thinking about global sustainability inform our field, especially the dilemma of managing unavoidable deterioration such as light damage? Top level definitions of sustainability, e.g., the Brundtland report, are couched in terms of final goals such as intergenerational equity, very much like top level explanations of heritage conservation goals. In the end, however, sustainability does reduce to making sure that consumption of something essential is balanced by its replenishment. For the environment, this means things such as clean air, forests, and food crops. For cultural heritage, this means things such as language, historic buildings, and museums. Note that sustainable things are all abstractions, not actual objects. Sustainable “things” are types of objects, e.g., trees, food, iconic textiles, or they are object configurations, e.g., water without toxins, or they are the systems themselves (biological, economic, and social/cultural) that create the types and configurations. They are not the actual water, food, or museum collections that you “consumed” last year. These actual objects, or the actual minimal ensemble needed for maintenance of a particular species, particular language, are irreplaceable.

This examination of what sustainability means implies that heritage organizations cannot sustain actual objects, they can only sustain types of objects (“manage change” as the National Trust UK states) . There seem to be two “types” in material heritage : rare precious objects, each a singularity, and the types that have many members, e.g., “19th century quilts”. As a type, rare and precious objects can only be sustained by ensuring that the deterioration of the current members is kept slow enough to allow slow replenishment by newer rare and precious objects. Types that have many member objects may allow a different strategy. Consider a class of textile objects. From a simple risk management perspective, the following scenarios are equally risky: 1) Rotate the class of objects so that each object is “rested” half the time. 2) Display only half of this class of objects, and leave the other half in the dark. The displayed pieces will have lost roughly twice as many colors, and although one can make arguments for more and less than double the loss of value, to a first approximation one would have to say simply that half the objects have double the damage of scenario 1, half have none, so scenarios 1 and 2 are equivalent in terms loss of value to the class. It is common, and considered ethical, to “rotate” and “rest” collections. Why? Scenario 1 allows twice as many people to see that class of objects “well” but subsequent generations will never see pristine examples of the class. It not sustainability. Scenario 2 is not simple sustainability either, but it does allow the (almost) indefinite maintenance of some exemplars of the class in a pristine state, like seed banks for sustaining genetic diversity. The presentation will explore various such scenarios for textile collections, illustrated via the light damage calculator to see what kind of sustainability is possible for heritage.

avatar for Stefan Michalski

Stefan Michalski

Senior Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute
STEFAN MICHALSKI Senior Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute Hon. B.Sc. in Physics and Mathematics, Queen’s University, Canada, 1972 For 35 years, Stefan has researched and provided advice on both collection preservation and object treatments. He has published... Read More →

Friday May 30, 2014 8:30am - 9:00am PDT
Seacliff A-B