Sustainable preservation at London Metropolitan Archives
Climate change and ecosystem breakdown is the greatest crisis that humanity has ever faced, and perhaps the most dangerous threat to all forms of life in our planet’s history. No aspect of our lives or the societies that sustain them will be unaffected. What is London Metropolitan Archives doing to help address the climate and environmental crisis? Conservator Tom Bower outlines the measures we are taking at LMA to reduce our environmental impact while at the same time safeguarding the collections in our care.
One of the most important ways to change our environmental impact is through how we use materials. At LMA, we try to use resources more efficiently and reduce waste at all levels. For example, to reduce plastic waste we installed chilled drinking water taps as an alternative to water coolers with disposable plastic tanks, and switched to reusable glasses and cups rather than disposable ones. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have prioritised regular hand washing rather than using single-use nitrile gloves, as well as providing all staff with washable, reusable cotton face masks.
When a material is no longer required for its original purpose, we try to reuse it whenever we can. For example, our archive box-making service re-uses the plastic film that the board for the boxes is delivered in as a wrapping for the finished boxes when they are sent to customers. We also re-use offcuts of materials, and adapt old boxes, folders and other materials for new purposes as much as possible. After exhibitions, we keep Perspex display stands and glazing for frames and try to re-use them in future exhibitions. If it is not possible to use them for another exhibition, there may be other uses for them. For example, Perspex glazing can be re-used as a lid for humidity chambers during conservation treatments.
We also encourage staff to use used photocopy papers for writing notes rather than using new paper sheets.
If a material is not reusable, then recycling is the next option. There are recycling bins throughout LMA and all staff are encouraged to recycle wherever possible.
Sometimes decisions taken to better preserve the collection can contribute to sustainability as well. For example, we try to use good quality, long-lasting materials for boxing and packaging historic items. The purpose of this is to protect historic objects from the long-term effects of decaying storage materials, but it has the added benefit of reducing the frequency with which packaging must be replaced in future.
However, there is still a lot more work to be done to ensure that all the materials used in archives are fully sustainable. Colleagues at organisations like Sustainability in Conservation (SiC) and the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage are working hard to research and promote eco-friendly materials and techniques within our sector.
In the Conservation Studio we have a wide range of weights we use that originally had a different purpose. An example is an old iron, old small metal boxes or plastic film roll boxes. We line the boxes with cloth or soft material to avoid sharp edges that can damage the document, and we fill the boxes with old metal bits such as old bolts and nails.
Energy production is one of the biggest causes of greenhouse gas emissions, so reducing energy use is another essential part of our efforts to control climate change. Building management systems in museums and archives maintain the stable temperatures and humidity levels that help prolong the life of historic objects using air conditioning and dehumidification. However, these systems use a lot of energy. The ideal form of building is one that requires little or no energy to maintain a stable internal environment. We call this passive climate control.
The main LMA building was built in 1938, so it was not designed with climate conscious energy efficiency or passive climate control in mind. Nonetheless, we have made good progress in reducing energy use and we are working hard to meet the target of 40% reduction in energy consumption by 2026 set for us by our local authority, the City of London Corporation. Over the past 10 years, we have installed double glazing on all the windows and insulated the exterior ground floor walls, which creates a more stable internal environment with lower energy use. Energy efficient LED lightbulbs are preferred as an alternative to traditional incandescent bulbs, and in our storerooms many of the lights are on timers to avoid them being accidentally left on when there is nobody in there. We are upgrading our building management and ventilation systems to improve their energy efficiency, and we also switch off the air conditioning system in our stores during colder times of year when we can maintain a low temperature without mechanical cooling. Furthermore, we are exploring whether we can install solar panels on the roof of LMA to produce our own renewable energy. The combined effect of these measures is that the building has a B rating for energy efficiency, which is very good for an old building and demonstrates the value of sustained and cumulative energy efficiency measures.
The City of London Corporation Climate Strategy
The measures taken at LMA are part of a wider strategy to reduce carbon emissions by the City of London Corporation. The Corporation recently announced its new Climate Action Strategy, a radical scheme to ensure it reaches net-zero emissions by 2040. This includes using 100% renewable energy, implementing sustainable building and land management, and encouraging walking and cycling in the City by widening pavements, creating new parks and introducing timed street closures.
Now more than ever, people are aware of the problems facing our climate and the ecosystems that sustain us, and the urgent need for action. At LMA and the wider City of London Corporation, we are committed to playing our part in the shift to sustainability, from small actions like recycling to bigger collective measures like clean energy transition. Together, we can all help to build a greener future.