An Introduction to KiCulture

By Caitlin Southwick

SiC began in 2016, and since its inception, has helped conservators around the world understand what sustainability is and how to apply green practices to conservation. But all of a sudden, we are hearing about another organisation, Ki Culture. So, what is Ki Culture, and how does it relate to SiC?

Figure1. Ki Culture is pronounced “key” culture. Ki is the Sumerian Goddess of Earth and the logo is the “Ki” written in cuneiform.

Ki Culture is a legally registered non-profit organization (ANBI stichting), based in Amsterdam, which I founded in 2019. From a legal, or technical perspective, Ki Culture is now the “parent” company of SiC – and SiC is a branch of Ki Culture. Ki Culture deals with sustainability in the broadest sense, from social to environmental, using the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals as a framework, and works across the cultural heritage sector, from archaeology and built heritage, to archaeologists and museums professionals. SiC continues to be specialized, focusing on green practices in conservation.

So, why did Ki Culture begin, and why is it linked to SiC?

I am a trained stone conservator, with a Professional Doctorate from the University of Amsterdam in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage. I have been working in the field for nine years. During my Master’s program, I realized the negative environmental impact that conservation has and wanted to do something about it – thus SiC was born.

It all started with gloves. When I was a Master’s student at Cardiff University, I was

in the lab and happened to look down as I walked by the trash can and saw that it was full of used disposable nitrile gloves. I thought, “well that seems awfully wasteful.” As someone who has always been passionate about the environment (when I was eight years old, I wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton imploring him to please stop the pollution), I had never really thought about it in terms of my studies – in terms of conservation. It seemed to me that conservation should inherently be sustainable. But in that moment, I realized that it was not. I looked around and looked at all of the toxic materials in our lab, the vast amounts of plastic and waste. I thought there must be a better way. I looked back to the gloves and thought “can’t we recycle these or something?” I asked my lecturers. They didn’t know. So, I started doing some research. I found out that disposable nitrile gloves cannot be recycled in traditional recycling. But, there are alternatives. There are programs specifically for nitrile gloves, including the RightCycle program from Kimberly Clark[1]and TerraCycle[2], which also offers recycling programs for otherwise difficult to recycle items. I also found that Showabest makes the GreenDex biodegradable nitrile gloves[3], which we tested out in our labs. There are solutions – but no one in my field knew about them. Which made me think that this kind of information needs to be accessible and in one place.

Figure 2. The trash can full of disposable nitrile gloves that launched the creation of SiC.

The first thing I Googled was “sustainability in conservation” and all I found was nature conservation. I tried again- “sustainability in ART conservation”. Still nothing. I could not find a resource center with information about sustainable practices in conservation of cultural heritage. So, I started one.

Sustainability in Conservation began as a Facebook group to create an international network for students to talk about and share sustainable practices. I invited conservation students from around the globe to join and asked that they would share what sustainable practices they were using in their programs. I had an enthusiastic response and quickly the number of members grew into the hundreds. But no one was posting anything. I realized there was a lot of interest – but not a lot of information. I started to recruit a team to help – to expand SiC’s purpose to also become a resource center with researchers who could help answer questions. I attended conferences to promote SiC and its work. In 2017 and after a presentation, I was approached by an audience member who said, “This is great. But we need this on a professional level, not just for students.” So, we expanded SiC again. We are continuing to grow, now working with the largest international organizations to provide solutions for conservators, facilitate original research and educate conservators on environmental issues.

Through my work at SiC, I was invited to be a member of the Working Group on Sustainability for ICOM. I have been the secretary of the Working Group for the past two years, and will continue in that role for the next mandate period until December 2022. Through my role in ICOM, I encountered an incredible amount of work and initiatives across the globe that were dealing with sustainability in cultural heritage – the Museums & Climate Change Network (Australia), the Coalition of Climate Justice (Canada), Sustainable Museums (USA), Curating Tomorrow (UK), We Are Museums (Germany), Climate Heritage Network (USA/Scotland), Julie’s Bicycle (UK) and many more. I noticed that this problem of how to integrate sustainability was not just an issue in conservation. It was an issue across all of cultural heritage.

I felt that there were a few obstacles with the way that sustainability was being approached. The first was that there was no organization that was dedicated full-time to sustainability in cultural heritage. Cultural heritage organizations were dealing with sustainability as one facet of their larger work, and sustainability organizations often overlooked cultural heritage, or it was a very small part of their larger scope. Within the field, questions that needed to be addressed were posed internally – to cultural heritage professionals who were mostly volunteers who had full-time, demanding jobs and other commitments on top of their work in sustainability. As cultural heritage professionals, we are not trained in sustainability issues. I also saw a lack of inter-sectoral collaboration. We were missing the expertise of climate scientists, sustainable engineers, micro-biologists and other professionals whose jobs are to find sustainable solutions, which made it very difficult to find win-win solutions. And while there was a lot of incredible work being done, it remained, for the most part, isolated. There was an insufficient means of communication and collaboration amongst initiatives on an international level. No one had a real bird’s eye view or grasp on what the situation was on an international, holistic level. We have so much to learn from each other, and there are so many incredible, inspirational stories, but they were not being told.

I decided that I needed to broaden my scope, and thus Ki Culture was born to address these matters. However, I recognized that conservation has unique issues and requirements, so I felt that it was very important to maintain SiC as a separately operating entity. Therefore, SiC became a branch of Ki Culture – benefitting from the non-profit and legal status of Ki Culture, while maintaining its own identity and purpose.

Figure 3. Ki Culture develops collaborative projects to make sustainability tangible, such as the Cultural Heritage Goals, which are a translation of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals for cultural heritage professionals.

Ki Culture works internationally, to unite the sector with sustainability. We do this by working with key partners in other sectors to find appropriate solutions for the cultural heritage sector and effectively communicating best practices and actions to professionals. We work to unite the sector – to bring together all the incredible work that is going on around the world to create a united force and tackle the issue holistically.

Ki Culture also aims to engage the public in sustainability and drive real change. I believe that we, as a sector, can not only emerge as leaders in the transition to a sustainable future, but can be the catalyst for cultural behavioral change toward a sustainable future. As trusted institutions of learning and knowledge, we have the capacity to succeed where other entities have failed- with “fake news” and distrust/disinterest in governments, one of the last institutions that holds inherent public trust are museums and cultural heritage centers. Visitors don’t question the information that is presented in museums- you don’t walk into the Rijksmuseum and see the Nacht Wacht and think – that’s not a Rembrandt. This dynamic offers an untapped resource and opportunity to effectively communicate – to inspire empathy and understanding – about issues related to sustainability. As the cultural heritage sector, we have the power to change the world. But we also need to change ourselves. And do to that, we need to know how.

Cultural heritage professionals and practitioners are fundamentally concerned with preservation, with storytelling and with continuation of the past, for the future. However, if there is no future for our planet, there is no place for cultural heritage. Additionally, the catastrophic weather events, becoming more prevalent due to climate change, are severely impacting our cultural heritage. The 2019 floods in Venice, the worst since 1966, are just a recent example in a long line of drastic events. But under the radar, it’s the slow deterioration and changes that are having the most negative impact. Historic Environment Scotland is leading the way in climate adaptation plans, but while we can plan for the inevitable events to come, we should also be looking at our own contribution to this issue – and how to mitigate this.

So, what do we do? What part do we play in this? What is our contribution and how can we change that? How can we, as the cultural heritage sector, save the world? This is what Ki Culture aims to answer. We hope you will join us.

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