Canned Soup and Cold Storage: Heritage Preservation During the Climate Crisis
In October 2022, activists from the climate justice group Just Stop Oil threw tomato soup at a Van Gogh painting in the National Gallery in London before supergluing themselves to its frame. As part of a series of disruptions around the city, they demanded to know: “What is worth more, art or life?” The painting itself wasn’t permanently damaged, but this action sparked passionate discourse far and wide—from international media outlets to Instagram meme pages. Since then, many other climate activists have staged protests inside museums. Critics often ask why the activists have not chosen alternative sites, perhaps the offices of BP or Shell. What could a painting have to do with climate change (beyond the obvious issue of museum investments in and funding from energy corporations)?
As a graduate student in conservation science, I spend most of my time in the lab studying centuries-old painting samples. For a long time, I took the value of preserving physical cultural heritage for granted: it contains historical and material information and holds social, economic, and aesthetic value. In fact, this value statement is central to how conservators, heritage conservation scientists, and curators often approach their work. The International Council of Museum’s Code of Ethics states that “Museums have the duty to acquire, preserve and promote their collections as a contribution to safeguarding the natural, cultural and scientific heritage.” Devoting time, energy, and personnel to the task of preservation is an ethical imperative, according to a dominant framework of (Western, European) museum management.
Preservation, though, does not come cheap. The financial and carbon costs are significant, and the climate crisis is already exacerbating the situation. Increasing temperatures and fluctuating humidity levels can cause structural changes to objects made of wood and paper. The arrival of new pests to regions previously too cold for them is also a threat (for instance, termites appearing in wood buildings in Northern Europe). Seasonal changes may affect the number and frequency of tourist visits to sites. And the dramatic intensification of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and other extreme weather events means that managers of heritage must be prepared for more severe and frequent threats to entire sites or collections.
Unfortunately (and ironically), the systems already in place to preserve collections often rely on energetically costly thermal and humidity control, including the use of cool or cold storage to slow natural degradation processes. This is cited in a recent Arts Council England Environmental Sustainability Report as a major contributor to gas and electricity consumption in museums, which have the largest carbon footprint in the arts sector. As the planet warms, these systems will need to work harder to keep objects within the narrow environmental range in which they do not experience damage, increasing their carbon footprint and exacerbating the processes that threaten them. Although some museums are in the process of switching to renewable energy sources and passive climate control, the sector is not entirely committed to making necessary changes; a new museum under construction in Berlin is set to be four times as energy-inefficient as another nearby museum built before the 20th century.
"In crisis, art has value, and perhaps we can approach climate change in productive ways by rethinking some basic assumptions about museums."
I reached out to a scientist working on sustainable heritage preservation, Professor Lukasz Bratasz at the Polish Academy of Sciences, to talk more about where the field is today and how museums can respond to climate change. He is one of the developers of HERIe, software that can model the impacts of environmental fluctuations on museum collections. This can help collections make choices about how to prioritise limited resources and justify decisions to allow more environmental variations if this will not affect preservation efforts. According to Professor Bratasz, we have more room to manoeuvre in this area than many realise; we have not optimised our energy use fully yet. He also noted that the museum sector is underprepared for the impacts of rare but catastrophically destructive events, such as fires and floods. Planning for these impacts may be a much more efficient use of resources than controlling for slower processes of change. However, modelling and disaster planning is not enough. We also need to rethink why we are conserving heritage in a world of climate crisis.
This is where it gets tricky. Remember that fundamental value, that preservation is an assumed Good? Amid the growing climate crisis, is it ethical to devote resources to energy-intensive preservation of art that could instead help preserve human lives? This is an existentially loaded question for me personally and for the field broadly, as it gets at the many different reasons that we value heritage. Financial and social considerations often take precedence over historical and aesthetic ones; this can lead to the prioritisation of resource-intensive preservation strategies to reassure shareholders, or the continued preservation of an unstable site because of the input of the surrounding community. Many of these discussions also approach preservation from the lens of Western museology, excluding non-Western perspectives and valuations of heritage objects. In some cases, allowing natural deterioration is more respectful to the intentions of the maker and/or the community to which an object or site belongs. Dr. Bratasz emphasised that without an honest and transparent discussion of what we value, we cannot effectively optimise anything, and for many of us, it’s easier just not to have these difficult, contested conversations.
The bottom line is that we cannot conserve everything. In his article “Is the past a nonrenewable resource?”, archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf (2001) cites the ballooning numbers of registered archaeological sites and collection records as evidence that we have identified more today worthy of preservation than ever before in the past and suggests that this trend is likely to continue. Resources are also not distributed fairly. Western European collections consume large amounts of energy for the sake of environmental control, while, as scholar Patrick Mbunwe-Samba (2001) argues, in other parts of the world cultural heritage actively deteriorates due to lack of resources. To summarise: heritage is unevenly preserved, preservation efforts are financially and energetically costly, and we are not prepared for the pressures that climate change will bring. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean we throw in the towel. In crisis, art has value, and perhaps we can approach climate change in productive ways by rethinking some basic assumptions about museums.
"Amid the growing climate crisis, is it ethical to devote resources to energy-intensive preservation of art that could instead help preserve human lives? This is an existentially loaded question for me personally and for the field broadly, as it gets at the many different reasons that we value heritage."
Natural history museums often engage with how Earth has changed over a long time horizon, while history and fine art museums tend to freeze collections at one point in time. “Museums may...be viewed as ‘machines for the destruction of time,’” writes Mary M. Brooks (2014), co-curator of the Stop the Rot exhibition (York Castle Museum, 1992-93). This does not have to be the case. The Stop the Rot exhibition is one example of institutional engagement with decay and deterioration, the processes that conservators usually aim to slow down or prevent. At the Manchester Art Gallery, curators are engaging with climate change and carbon costs in the art world directly in their current Climate Justice exhibition.
Importantly, these and other examples of creative engagement with questions about preservation are also concerned with the social and cultural importance of collections, generating new meanings and values of heritage objects and situating them in our unsettled present. I talked to Dr Lora Angelova, Head of Conservation Research and Audience Development at the National Archives in London, about how she situates her work in the midst of these ethical concerns. She noted that although much of our assignment of value of heritage objects—particularly in the Western museum context—is culturally learned and immensely exclusionary, conservators are in a unique position to use what we learn from our research to produce new kinds of value and engagement. Archives in particular are usually open for public handling, making both material objects and the information they contain available for reinterpretation. For instance, during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic (itself a consequence of human impact on the environment), heritage objects created during and after the Black Death and the AIDS pandemic have found new resonance. I’ve been thinking more about the ambiguous “future generations” for whom we are preserving an object. If increased handling as part of public engagement or sampling for research does minor damage to physical heritage, perhaps we should accept that when it helps us engage with more people in the present or use our heritage in a meaningful way.
Research for this article came out of an existential panic that I feel about the value of my work when I try to confront the numerous overlapping crises facing the world. I maintain that the study of art and preservation of our material past is valuable, but it cannot be done in a vacuum. The potential of alternative modes of looking at objects such as those I’ve discussed makes me hopeful. In her essay “Big and Slow,” author and poet Elisa Gabbert suggests that “a shift in aesthetics” may be key to helping us react more effectively to climate change, as part of the challenge of reacting is comprehending the scale of the threat in the first place. It seems to me that here, too, we can look to our past responses to crises to understand our current one. But first we need to engage with heritage objects and conversations about their value and preservation in more expansive ways.
Brooks, M. M. (2014) “Decay, Conservation, and the Making of Meaning through Museum Objects,” in Smith, P. H., Meyers, A. R. W., Cook, H. J. (eds.) Ways of Making and Knowing : the Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge. Bard Graduate Center Cultural Histories of the Material World.
Holtorf, C. J. (2001) “Is the Past a Non-Renewable Resource?” in Layton, R., Stone, P., Thomas, J., (eds.) Destruction and Conservation of Cultural Property. One World Archaeology. 41.
Mbunwe-Samba, P. (2001) “Should Developing Countries Restore and Conserve?” in Layton, R., Stone, P., Thomas, J. (eds.) Destruction and Conservation of Cultural Property. One World Archaeology. 41.
Ellen Purdy [2019, 2020] is a third-year PhD student in Chemistry studying early synthetic blue pigments and novel methods for noninvasive analysis of heritage objects.