Life Cycle Analysis


“Life Cycle Analysis” is a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities in the USA and its aim is to create a LCA library for conservators to use accessible. 

“Planning a Life Cycle Analysis Library of Preventive Conservation Methods”
An Introduction to the NEH Tier 1 Research and Development Grant

Sarah Nunberg, Objects Conservation Studio
Sarah Sutton, LEED-AP, Sustainable Museums

At what cost to our health and to the environment and do we protect, preserve, and exhibit cultural heritage? How can we tell, reliably?

“Custodians of cultural heritage use known carcinogens in conservation treatments, curate

exhibitions that require long distance transportation of artifacts worldwide, and advise energy intensive environmental management, often with little consideration of potential impacts to the environment and health. Many custodians of cultural heritage believe that the quantities of solvents, amount of air travel, frequency of construction for exhibition and storage, and use of heating and cooling are minimal compared with industry and most business uses, justifying their lack of concern and reluctance to change work habits.”[1]

When cultural heritage professionals make choices between one conservation method or another, one product or exhibit material or another, they do so without a clear view to the negative human and environmental impacts of those decisions. Even health and sustainability professionals would struggle to distinguish among a myriad of hidden impacts, and then decide which are most beneficial or least-bad. Without an agreed-upon method for visualizing and assessing those impacts, most heritage professionals avoid or overlook this critical step. The goal of this research project is to help simplify that process to create better human and environmental health outcomes for our profession.

FAIC was awarded a Tier 1 Research and Development grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in January 2017 to study

  • how to apply Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to evaluate the environmental impact of comparative materials and actions that curators, conservators, registrars and art handlers frequently use as they manage collections, and
  • how to provide an adaptive tool that allows professionals to query a database to identify the related impacts of individual materials and processes they are considering using.

The result will be a plan and process to develop a library of LCA cases highlighting specific projects that have identified the impacts of commonly-used products or practices, and to also populate an interactive database that will be a tool any practitioner can use to uncover the potential impacts of choices when planning to treat, protect, or display heritage objects.

Who Is the Library For?

Since the project goal is to help a wide range of cultural practitioners answer questions about the impacts of their choices, we expect users to come from a wide variety of collections care roles. This includes facilities managers, registrars and collections managers, curators and conservators, librarians and archivists, exhibit designers and preparators, and shippers and handlers. An exhibit designer may be choosing among two types of materials in mounts; a conservator may be designing a cleaning system; the facilities manager may be thinking about re-lamping some cases; and the registrar maybe trying to sort through a long list of materials to be ordered. We have attempted to align our research and planning with this range of practitioner needs by speaking with private conservators, curators, engineers, and researchers, so far.

What We’re Producing

We expect to:

  • Complete three LCA projects;
  • Test our beta LCA product impact search tool this spring and summer;
  • Then identify what classes of components to continue to add to the search tool database;
  • Complete a priority list of other LCAs to complete during an implementation project.

Purpose for the Field

As a research project the next steps are continually evolving, but we hope to expand the project with an implementation grant to implement the ideas developing now. Professionals reviewing the project proposal to NEH noted in their comments that this project may be successful both with “the difficult task of creating concrete yet widely applicable” tools, and that it would reveal “new information of value to decision-making.”

So far, it has been an important journey of discovery. An important part of that has been learning what the field needs, and then shaping the design of the LCA and the beta tool to best reflect those needs. The next post will introduce you to the LCA process, and later posts will introduce you to our results so far.

What is Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) and How Does it Help Heritage Professionals?
Part II of “Planning a Life Cycle Analysis Library of Preventive Conservation Methods”

Sarah Nunberg, Objects Conservation Studio
Sarah Sutton, LEED-AP, Sustainable Museums

This project is about making the invisible visible through employing Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) to identify the environmental and human health impacts of the materials we use and practices we follow. It aims to help custodians of cultural heritage identify their environmental impact through informed decision making.

Though LCA is mostly new to the cultural heritage profession, it was developed in the 1960s and 1970s and is currently used by industry with the increased efforts to “go green.” For example, the clothing industry is increasingly known for its use of LCA to reduce the impact from clothing production, use, and disposal. This LCA from Levi Strauss of blue jeans provides an excellent example of LCA application to study a product that is familiar to many.

While the goals and context of each LCA study may differ, the approach follows a specific format for accuracy and credibility, which was established through guidelines set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO:2010) [2] These guidelines define four phases of an LCA:

a) the goal and scope definition phase;

b) the inventory analysis phase;

c) the impact assessment phase;

d) the interpretation phase.

When studying the environmental impact of a product, action or material, the first step is to define the focus of the study.  Next, the goals of the study are set through establishing the system boundaries, which also define the scope of the project. Usually the scope addresses the impact of a material or action from cradle to grave or cradle to gate. Cradle to grave analysis encompasses the lifespan of an object or action from first manufacture to use and final disposal, while cradle to gate analyses includes only up to the ‘gate’ where the product leaves the manufacturer’s hands [3].

For example, examining a newspaper from cradle to gate considers growing the trees, including fertilizers and other agricultural inputs such as water, harvesting, transport, and processing the pulp into paper. Cradle to grave would examine everything in the cradle to gate study along with transport of the paper, printing and packaging it for distribution, transport, and then disposal of the paper. Whether a study encompasses cradle to gate or cradle to grave of an object or action depends on the extent of the system boundary defined for the study. 

You may recognize the term cradle to cradle made familiar as the title of a book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by architect/designer William McDonough and chemical engineer Michael Braumgart. It refers to designing new products and materials to have a positive impact on the earth as they are developed, used, and returned to a resource state. Most materials are not yet designed that way, and so we usually examine materials systems using clear beginnings and ends.

When analyzing the act of exhibiting an object, the system boundary may include: art and courier transport, crate construction and packing materials; gallery preparation including exhibition cases, vitrines, and the gallery wall construction and paint finishes, and then the associated energy for environmental management (HVAC system) while the item is displayed, or stored for travel. You can extend the system boundary to also include the administration aspects such as registration activities, condition reporting, and even associated energy through computer use. One might choose not to include the energy and resources expended in making the art object or the impact of building the museum that houses the objects. You determine how broad or narrow the assessment is.

In our next three blog posts we will share the three LCA conducted as part of this Tier 1 grant.

They have been carried out in partnership with engineer Dr. Mathew Eckelman of Northeastern University and his students to populate a future LCA library accessible through the AIC website. Over the past five years Dr. Eckelman and his students carried out seven LCA studies, helping co-director Sarah Nunberg and advisor Pamela Hatchfield in making the treatment, packing, exhibition and storage decisions that, in the process, led to the design of this project [4].

The posts will show how we’ve applied the LCA process in these three examples:

  • three silver objects, each cared for and displayed under differing circumstances;
  • the impacts of various cleaning systems and their components;
  • the impacts of a series of storage approaches with varying degrees of active climate control methods.

Through this project we hope to collect data concerning the needs of practitioners, which we can apply to populate the LCA tool – with materials and actions. We expect to identify hotspots, or materials or actions within specific systems that result in the highest carbon footprint or unacceptable results for other impact categories. Once we know what those hotspots are, professionals can make informed decisions to choose alternative methods and materials with reduced risk to human and environmental health.

We would be delighted to hear from you with comments or questions, please contact us at and

[1] Nunberg, Sarah, Sarah Sutton, Matthew Eckelman, “Planning a Life Cycle Analysis Library and Beta Tool for Sustainable Cultural Heritage Preservation and Exhibition Practices,” in Addressing the Challenges of Communicating Climate Change Across Audiences. Editors Walter Leal Filho, Bettina Christina Lackner, Henry McGhie, Springer 2018. Pieces of this blogpost, and this project’s story were presented at the International Conference for Museums & Climate, Manchester, UK, 2018.

[2] The series of standards documents ISO 14040–14049 describes the principles and framework for LCA including: definition of the goal and scope of the LCA, the life cycle inventory analysis phase, the life cycle impact assessment phase, the life cycle interpretation phase. LCA should follow the principles and guidelines of the ISO 14040. ISO 14040 sets standards for the LCA, which each LCA practitioner must follow (ISO:2010). (Nunberg et al, 2018).

[3] Nunberg, Sarah, Sarah Sutton, Matthew Eckelman, “Planning a Life Cycle Analysis Library and Beta Tool for Sustainable Cultural Heritage Preservation and Exhibition Practices,” in Addressing the Challenges of Communicating Climate Change Across Audiences. Editors Walter Leal Filho, Bettina Christina Lackner, Henry McGhie, Springer 2018. Pieces of this blogpost, and this project’s story were presented at the International Conference for Museums & Climate, Manchester, UK, 2018.

[4] Nunberg, S., M. Eckelman, and P. Hatchfield. 2016. “Life Cycle Assessments of Loans and Exhibitions: Three Case Studies at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation. Volume 55, no. 1:2-11.

This research project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Grant PR-253401-17, from the Division of Preservation and Access. Project Director: Eric Pourchot, FAIC. Co-PIs Sarah Nunberg, Objects Conservation Studio, and Sarah Sutton, LEED-AP, Sustainable Museums. Team Members: Engineer, Matthew Eckelman, PhD., Northeastern University; Pamela Hatchfield, Museum of Fine Arts Boston; and Michael C. Henry, P.E. & AIA, Watson & Henry Associates. Website

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