Leadership in Sustainability in the Conservation Field

Submitted: May 19, 2021

Daniela Molinari, SAP Director
Paintings Conservator

As sustainability increasingly becomes a major defining feature of progression in many disciplines and businesses, leadership in this aspect is important. Leadership success requires confidence in your decisions, the support of your peers, the knowledge that things may change quickly, and that your answers may not be the right answers, or the right answers might change over time. This is the nature of sustainability, as well as the nature of the conservation of cultural heritage. Conservators are already well-versed in adaptations of techniques, testing new materials, and adjusting their practices according to constantly updated standards and new research. Conservators are also known to adapt materials and techniques from other disciplines, all of which place conservators in ideal positions to be leaders in sustainability.

I started to integrate into leading the Student Ambassador program in the early months of 2019, while I was in the last semester of my master’s degree at Northumbria University studying Conservation of Fine Art and specializing in easel paintings. I was not sure I would be able to lead such a program as I was still a student myself; I just knew that I wanted to make a difference in conservation and contribute towards making this a sustainable field to work in. Though I was unsure of myself at first, being the Director of the Student Ambassador Program is possibly what has helped me grow the most in my conservation career because of the confidence it has given me, the hard work that I have put into it, the connections I have made, and the amazing support that I continually receive from the SiC team.

Leading the Student Ambassador Program and having written two (almost three…coming this Fall) handbooks has been an unbelievably rewarding experience. I have travelled to several countries, pre-pandemic of course, to talk to students at conferences which has allowed me to practice my public speaking skills and to meet a few members of the SiC team in person. I have also made lasting connections with conservators, who I may not have otherwise met.

At first, I thought that leading this program would be a small venture, hosting meetings a couple times a year with 5 or 6 students, and at the beginning it did reflect this somewhat. However, every year the program has received more and more applications on an increasingly global scale. This past academic year has been the largest group, with students participating from all over the world, India to the United States, Norway to Nigeria.

Every spring I have the opportunity to write the handbook that students will use as a guide for the following academic year. The time spent researching sustainable practices has given me the ability to understand where cultural heritage institutions stand, where they are going, and what has been left behind in the shift towards a sustainable future. It has also given me opportunities to connect with others about certain topics and keep up to date with a certain level of academic writing.

The SAP has grown so much since its conception in 2018, and I am very proud to continue leading and cultivating a program that allows students to connect with each other, create sustainable practices, and have a sense of agency in a field where much of our materials are petroleum derivatives. Once students graduate, I hope that they also move into leadership positions, and have confidence in their abilities to create sustainable spaces. In fact, students often end up joining the SiC team in a variety of roles, wanting to make changes beyond their university environments. Action begets confidence, and vice versa in a continuous loop, allowing for making decisions and taking actions toward leadership in sustainability roles.

The students will be able to attest to their experiences and their research done towards sustainable futures in 2022, when SiC will host a Student Ambassador Program Alumni conference, on an online platform. Students will be invited to share their progress beyond the program. I believe that starting a sustainability journey from studentship is ideal and should be encouraged. The thoughts and ideas that are learned, explored and encouraged during university and college level education in cultural heritage can only grow over time. The quality of work, and the strides that students have taken towards making their studio and lab environments more sustainable as part of the SAP has been incredible, and the students who participate often far exceed expectations.

I hope that there will be many leadership roles in sustainability available in the future at museums and galleries, and I encourage the alumni of the SAP to fill those roles, or even be the ones who advocate for their creation. I do not believe that to be a leader in sustainability you need have the title of Director, CEO, Manager, or Team Leader. Though I have had the opportunity to run a program designed for sustainability, taking appropriate action and having the right conversations are all that is necessary for conservation to have a bright and sustainable future.