Sustainability x (Museums + Conservation Dept. + Companies) = Proactive Collaborative Conservation (ProCoCo)

Today’s Guest Post is by Valentina Perzolla. Valentina was recently awarded her PhD from the University of Leeds, UK (School of Design), where she carried out a study on the degradation of leather and leather-related materials. For the full article: V. Perzolla, C. M. Carr, and S. Westland, ‘Proactive Collaborative Conservation: Museums and Companies Working Towards Sustainability’, Journal of Cultural Heritage Management and Sustainable Development, Feb. 2018.

It is no secret that the amount of public funding granted to museums in many areas of the world is considerably shrinking. In the last years this shrinkage has impacted on several aspects of museums’ choices, such as the variety of exhibitions and further activities proposed, the type and extent of conservation treatments carried out, and the amount of research conducted in collaboration with other institutions.

Along with the obvious consequences, this situation is exacerbating further problems related, for example, to the long term sustainability – social, environmental and economic – of museums and to the perception that visitors have of their role and impact (see p. 10 of this link). It is in this context that the Proactive Collaborative Conservation (ProCoCo) approach can operate and become a useful tool, not just for museums.

ProCoCo, in fact, was developed to create a bridge between the knowledge of manufacturers and that of conservators and conservation scientists.

The starting point of ProCoCo lays in the assumption that preventive conservation is crucial within both established and less known institutions. However, in many cases this conservation practice is not enough to prevent deterioration. This is particularly true when composites and innovative materials which comprise a number of parts, additives and finishing compounds are considered, and therefore, new creative ways of answering these needs must be found.

Picture 1
Leather is an example of traditional material that has changed in the last 150 years. Innovative types of leather have been developed and they are used to produce art and design objects, but also consumer products and seats for transport means.

When using the ProCoCo approach, new emerging substrates and products are studied and their ageing degradation behaviour evaluated. Accelerated ageing techniques are used to simulate the behaviour of the substrates in use, prior to entering and subsequently on display in museum collections. A commercial partner (manufacturer, first partner) initiates the process by contacting an institution (museum, second partner) potentially interested in the degradation of the manufactured material. Together with the conservation department (third partner), they write a funding proposal to obtain the necessary financial resources required for conducting the study.

Essential properties of both unaged and aged samples of the substrate are measured by means of invasive and non-invasive techniques and statistical analysis is conducted to assess significant properties variations. The results of such study consist in a list of non‑invasive degradation markers that museums can use to assess the conservation state of the substrates once they enter the collection. Furthermore, data regarding common degradation patterns and their impact on substrates properties are gathered by the commercial partner, who can then use them to develop more environmentally friendly products.

Picture 2
Unaged and artificially aged leather samples, respectively on the right and left side of the image (a). Samples subjected to the non-destructive Kawabata Evaluation System (KES) test for compressional properties (b), and the destructive tensile test (c) and pH measurement (d)

ProCoCo is designed with the sustainability principles in mind.

  • Firstly, the optimisation of exhibition conditions and the reduction of some aggressive chemicals used in museums during active conservation treatments will help in implementing environmental sustainability principles. Indeed, the study of the substrate degradation patterns will enable commercial partners to develop novel creative ways to face issues related with materials end-of-life.
  • Secondly, social sustainability principles will be respected by minimising the chances of jeopardising artworks and culturally meaningful objects, hence preserving their cultural value with only minimal interventions.
  • Thirdly, ProCoCo will facilitate the detection of early degradation signs, which for museums translates in lower need for expensive restoration treatments (economic sustainability).

It would be unrealistic to think that there are not potential disadvantages in implementing this collaborative approach, e.g. the large amount of time that conservation scientists should dedicate to the ageing procedures and the risk of interference from the company.

For this reason, it is essential to establish rights and duties of each part involved in the ProCoCo and, consequently, it would be useful to conduct workshops with a delegation of the three parties representing the three partners. This limitation, though, should not be a deterrent because this approach promotes a holistic vision of sustainability.

ProCoCo would help designing more sustainable products and, at the same time, would support museums in being both the custodians of social and cultural values and active participant to the change of society.

ValentinaPerzollaPic Valentina Perzolla received a bachelor’s degree in Technology for Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage from the University of Florence (Italy) and a master’s degree in Science for Cultural Heritage from the University of Turin (Italy). She was recently awarded her PhD from the University of Leeds, UK (School of Design), where she carried out a study on the degradation of leather and leather-related materials. During her PhD she collaborated with a private company and this motivated her to investigate possible ways to establish viable and long-term collaborations between museums and companies. Visit the LinkedIn profile of Valentina.

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