Art Conservation and Being Green

Conserving water, using solar energy, and recycling plastic are some things that often come to mind when I think about being green.  And while these things are incredibly important to creating a sustainable existence, there’s a lot more to it.  For example, there are a lot of ways to avoid creating waste in our daily lives.  Most of these ideas actually stem from the two years I spent working with an art conservator in Los Angeles.

When most people think of art conservation, they think of someone hunched over a painting, meticulously cleaning an Old Master painting with a tiny cotton swab.  And while cleaning paintings is definitely a common task in art conservation, there’s a lot more that goes into it.  While treating delicate works of art can seem a daunting and complex task, it turns out that most of the concepts are based on simple common sense. Thus, these concepts and perspectives are quite easily transferred to the larger goal of greening the environment and our lifestyles.

One of the main goals of conserving art is to extend the lifespan of an object.  There are a lot of considerations that go into this for many objects. Some are sensitive to light, oxygen, changes in humidity or temperature.  Some need constant care and monitoring, while others only require simple routine maintenance.  One of the first considerations in all of these endeavors are the materials involved – both of the object and of any external materials used in its care. For example, any repair applied to an object should not be stronger than the object itself. This will inevitably lead to further damage, as the object will break around the strong repair as stress is applied.  This is often seen with stone objects repaired with cement, as the stone further cracks and crumbles adjacent to the repair.  

“Inherent vices” are also critical to the understanding of artwork.  Plastic objects are particularly difficult, as many of them are inherently unstable and have begun to degrade in the decades since their manufacture.  Plasticizers migrate to the surface of the object, making the surface sticky while the body of the object is left brittle and friable.  These objects are not only more fragile, but are left with an unsightly coating of yellowing plasticizer adhering a layer of dust.  Sometimes this effect can be mitigated by sequestering the object in a dark freezer in order to slow the effects of aging on the object, but other times the decay is inevitable.  Some artists took this instability into account when designing and creating their art, purposefully making objects that were meant to be evanescent.  Others were taken completely by surprise when their objects began to yellow and break apart.

Pool toys are an unfortunate example of this – the foam and rubber tend to degrade quickly after a summer of being left outside everyday, leading to the need for frequent replacement.  The lifetime of these toys can be greatly extended by understanding the material’s inherent instability under UV light.  There are countless other examples of material misuse in our daily lives, where by ignoring an object’s material properties – weaknesses to light, moisture, or heat – we cause its rapid degradation.  By simply choosing a better-suited material, we can reduce the waste we generate from discarding old objects and manufacturing new ones.

The maintenance needs of different materials should also be considered when selecting an object for a job.  Just like your car needs its oil changed regularly, art requires regular maintenance to avoid long term damage.  Bronze statues, for example, are easily protected from corrosion by regular application of a coat of wax, while many paintings benefit from a regular cleaning and re-application of protective varnish.  Similarly, preventative maintenance on your roof protects your rafters from rain and rot, and keeps you from needing to perform costly (and wasteful) repairs.  

Keeping both of these things in mind allows us to make more informed, green choices in our everyday lives.  For example, many people have already moved away from using plastic cookware, recognizing that these plastics often melt when accidentally left resting against a hot pan and may also leave somewhat toxic plasticizers behind in the food.  Outdoor furniture often has cushions made of water-resistant cloth or polyester filling, reducing the growth of mold after summer rainstorms.  There are many preventative measures that can be taken, including bringing plastic buckets and balls inside to prevent damage from the daily bombardment of sunlight, and using weather-resistant materials or coatings to extend the lifespan of decks, siding, and outdoor furniture are common sense things to do.  These simple adjustments can help reduce both your weekend appointments with the hardware store and your impact on the environment.