Reflecting on his presentation Defending the Use of (Recycled) Materials, presented at STASH Flash Pre-Meeting Session at the American Institute for Conservation’s 2014 Meeting in San Francisco, CA
Anyone who has written a thesis can attest to the lingering thoughts, “will anyone read this?”
In 2013 I had finished grad school and a tome of a thesis about sustainable materials and practices in collections care. I had a few people tell me it’s great, innovative research but too long to casually read. And at 124 pages with only a few photographs of boards and foams, I can’t disagree. But I was done with the thesis so I would need some reason to revisit it.
As is the case in conservation research, it’s never over. I noticed that the 2014 American Institute for Conservation’s annual meeting was going to have a theme of Conscientious Conservation – Sustainable Choices in Collection Care. This was the exact topic I spent two years so heavily invested in. But I had already presented different parts of this research a handful of times and I was frankly a little worn out talking about it.
But of course I wasn’t really worn out, I just needed to be re-energized. At the conference there would be a series of 5-minute tips presented in a pre-meeting session organized by the editors of the Storage Techniques for Art, Science and History (STASH) website. Called the STASH Flash Pre-Session I had the opportunity to present a facet of my research that, in my mind, was the most innovative yet least discussed part of it – the ethical discussion of what makes a material “museum-quality” paired with scientific testing comparative testing of traditional museum quality materials and sustainable alternatives.
This section of my research was 60 pages, which I managed to condense into 4 minutes and 18 seconds, where I introduced the materials I tested (polyethylene foams, polypropylene corrugated board, and cellulose boards) and then argued that materials as simple as cardboard and foam can still be improved upon by making them sustainable.
As luck would have it I wasn’t able to attend the conference, so I submitted a narrated slide presentation. I immediately got positive feedback even though I was across the continent. As part of my desire to have a record of it I turned my presentation into a video, which you can see below.
Before you watch it I would ask what do you think of recycled materials and museum quality materials. Can a material possibly be both recycled and suitable for use with collections?
To find an answer I conducted two rounds of Oddy Tests, the accelerated aging test used to detect the presence of volatile compounds through off-gassing. I compared Ethafoam® 220 to possible sustainable alternatives Ethafoam® HRC (High Recycled Content), Ethafoam® MRC (Maximum Recycled Content) and Stratocell® RC (Recycled Content); Coroplast® Archival to possible sustainable alternative Corogreen™; and Talas’s Heritage Corrugated Board and Archivart®’s Multi-Use Board to possible sustainable alternative CXD’s Superior Archival Millboard. These materials encompass the three kinds of materials that I feel are the most commonly used in collections care – plastic foams, plastic boards, and cellulose boards – and therefore might have the greatest impact on the field regardless of material specialty.
After all the research, testing, and retesting was done I found out that both the material we traditionally use and the sustainable alternatives pass with the same level of success. What does this mean for the field? At the very best it means we need to continue to evaluate whether or not we are using the best materials possible. At worst it means we are not, it means we are holding onto archaic values that virgin materials are the best and the economic, environmental, and social consequences of harvesting these materials are worth it.
If you would like to know more about my research download the full or condensed version of my thesis here on academia.edu.
If you would like to see the video you can click here or the image below to view it in full.