The Collection Care Department was successful in its application for funding to the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage programme to support the research cluster 'Environmental guidelines: opportunities and risks' (EGOR). Nancy Bell, Head of Collection Care, was Principal Investigator and additional support was provided by co-investigators, Stephen Hackney from Tate and Dr Matija Strlič from UCL's Centre for Sustainable Heritage.

Background

Current environmental parameters and tolerances set out in national and international guidelines, standards and legislation play a critical role in shaping practices in the cultural heritage sector. 

They inform how collections are stored, accessed, loaned and displayed since they provide a baseline for preservation activities, visitor comfort and access to collections locally as well as internationally.

These include the control of temperature, moisture, light and pollution - the main factors affecting the long-term conservation of material culture. 

The implications for existing guidelines in the context of climate change and global responsibility have yet to be considered. With the increasing demand for sustainable strategies and the requirement to adapt to a changing climate, there are no easy answers to this problem. The risks need to be identified, the costs understood and the options appraised. 

Aims and objectives

Bringing together researchers from the disciplines of arts and humanities, conservation, science and engineering as well as practitioner communities, EGOR aimed to investigate the implications for current environmental guidelines, standards and targets for the conservation of cultural heritage in a changing climate, including associated risks and uncertainties facing the sector.

The main objectives of the cluster were to:

  • identify research priorities
  • determine the evidence required and where further study is needed
  • provide a forum for lively debate and comparative thinking
  • develop a coherent 'voice' that can usefully inform decision makers, standard setters and heritage practitioners
  • transform the understanding of the costs and risks of current environmental standards, guidelines and targets on people, places and collections

The cluster involved three multi-disciplinary working groups addressing questions and challenges under the headings of Collections, Buildings and People. 

Each working group considered whether:

  • current environmental guidelines, standards and legislation provide a level of responsible stewardship, thus ensuring that our understanding of cultural values and identity continue and will be enhanced
  • global responsibility necessitates consideration of the implications of current guidelines, standards and legislation in the context of heavy reliance on fossil fuel energy sources.

Working group 1: Collections

What are the implications for collections within current environmental guidelines, standards and legislation in a changing climate?

  • How well do current environmental standards, guidelines and targets align with the conservation of movable heritage?
  • Are current environmental parameters and tolerances defensible? If not, in which ways are they unacceptable?
  • What are the metrics necessary to determine acceptable change?
  • What technologies are needed to develop adaptive strategies?
  • What is acceptable loss?

Working group 2: Buildings

What are the implications for heritage buildings, and buildings housing cultural collections (sometimes one and the same) within current environmental guidelines, standards and legislation in a changing climate?

  • How well do current environmental guidelines, standards and sustainability targets align with the conservation of cultural heritage?
  • In what ways do current environmental guidelines, standards and legislation align with historic structures? And with modern buildings?  
  • What are the costs of current guidelines to built heritage? What are the costs of adapting buildings to achieve preservation environments? Are new builds preferable?
  • What are the passive technologies available as alternatives? Do passive control systems work, and if not why not? What technologies/materials might be available now or in the future which can provide energy efficiency and responsible stewardship? 
  • What can the building industry learn from the performance of historic buildings?

Working group 3: People

What are the implications for current environmental standards and guidelines, for people and communities who engage with cultural heritage? 

  • What is the alignment between current standards, guidelines and targets for the human experience: people who visit and work in cultural heritage institutions? 
  • Do current standards enable a high degree of access to collections, locally and internationally? 
  • How might people respond to warmer working in the summer and cooler in the winter? 
  • How do visitors view losses to collections, how might this affect how we value cultural heritage? 
  • How might changing attitudes for reuse, renewable resources, and human adaptation to climate change alter access, presentation, and interpretation of cultural heritage in the future?

A residential meeting brought together the thoughts and findings of the working groups; while a public engagement event 'Price - no object!' held at the Royal Institution offered a lively and interactive discussion around the values and costs of cultural heritage.

Key outcomes

  • Identify the themes and priorities for research needed to develop environmental guidelines, standards and legislation within the context of a changing climate
  • Determine the evidence required to inform key critical research questions identified in this research cluster, gaps in the evidence, and the research priorities necessary to address them
  • Transform understanding of the costs and risks of current environmental standards, guidelines and targets on people, places and collections
  • Develop the critical research themes and questions emerging from this cluster and the means by which the research can be addressed
  • Identify the types and kinds of evidence and data necessary to inform the questions raised, gaps in the evidence and data, and areas of scholarly research necessary to fill them
  • Create a dynamic communication network to engage a range of science and arts and humanities disciplines to engage with the scientific, technological, economic and social challenges posed by this cluster
  • Report findings of the cluster and disseminate this to professional and academic communities, decision makers and Government agencies such as DEFRA, DCMS, BERR, MLA, CIBSE.

While EGOR confirmed there is still much to be learned about the behaviour of materials in different environments and over various timescales, it also emerged that there is a lack of a clear framework for thinking about cultural heritage and for responding to questions about values - these issues will become ever more essential in the future. As an intellectual exercise for the cultural heritage sector, EGOR was long overdue and the findings will inform and influence change within the sector nationally and internationally.

Investigators

Principal investigator

Nancy Bell, Head of Collection Care, The National Archives

Co-investigators

Stephen Hackney, Tate
Dr Leslie Carlyle, Tate
Dr Matija Strlič, Senior Lecturer, UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage

Steering group

Nicholas Poole, CEO, Collections Trust
Sam Jones, DEMOS
Dr Nigel Blades, The National Trust
Kate Bellamy, National Museum Directors' Conference
Dr Jonathan Ashley-Smith, Author of Risk Assessment for Object Conservation (Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999)

International contributors

Dr Eric Hanson, Chief Scientist, Library of Congress, USA
Stefan Michalski, Sr. Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute (Rome)