Justine Wuebold

Justine Wuebold. Photo credit Heather Powell.

When and how do you start teaching sustainability to students in cultural heritage conservation programs? In the process, how do you define sustainability and explain its importance? These are just a few of the questions to be investigated by Justine Wuebold, newly-named research associate for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Embedding Sustainability in Cultural Heritage Conservation Education Initiative at the UCLA Interdepartmental Program in Conservation of Archaeological and Ethnographic Materials.

In her initial 10-month tenure, Wuebold will be coordinating activities between UCLA faculty, Getty Conservation Institute scientists, and an outside advisory board consisting of engineers, architects, and conservators with expertise in sustainability to create a strategic plan for teaching sustainability. Wuebold holds a dual masters in Museum Studies and Business Administration from John F. Kennedy University where her thesis was on Sustainable Materials in Collections Care. She has worked in museums and cultural heritage for eight years, with specialized knowledge in collections care, conservation and green museum practices. According to co-project director Prof. Ellen Pearlstein, UCLA Information Studies and UCLA/Getty Conservation Program, “Interviews were conducted with an interdisciplinary advisory board, and we were delighted to find Justine, who is already working in sustainability closely linked with conservation of cultural heritage. As a collections care professional, Justine is committed to an even wider set of practices and materials than are conservators, and the eventual reach of educational methods will also be broader.”

Following are excerpts from an interview with Wuebold, who begins her new job remotely in June.


Roz Salzman: There are a lot of words in your job title. For discussion purposes, let’s narrow it down to determining how best to teach sustainability to conservation students. Can we start by defining sustainability as it applies to conservation?

Justine Wuebold: It is actually what I was working on in my Museum Studies master’s program. I was looking at the materials we use in collections care to determine whether or not they are sustainable. I was focusing on environmental sustainability, although I also addressed social sustainability. I was studying the materials we use to preserve, transport, and store the artifacts. Questions like: which ones are more durable; which ones can be composted? On the social sustainability side, how are we helping our interns to ensure that they are well paid and taken care of in their lab spaces. Are they being given instruction and not just menial tasks that they are not learning from? There are actually a lot of different aspects that I’ll be looking into.

RS: How does the use of materials used in conservation impact the environment?

JW: We want to know how the use of the materials to preserve an object is impacting the community and the planet. For example, sometimes we’re using chemicals to preserve objects, and we are finding that some of these chemicals may be toxic to human health. We know what might be best for the object in order to preserve it longer, but what is the negative impact on human health for those who are handling the material? There are studies right now that show that the carcinogenic qualities of some of the toxic chemicals we use in conservation can affect young women, especially their reproductive health. Can we pull back on the use of those chemicals; in what circumstances are they really necessary? So we need to find more sustainable chemicals. Or looking at how we dispose of the plastic materials that we use to wrap objects? Can we wear reusable gloves or biodegradable gloves in an effort to get rid of single-use gloves or even find a way to repurpose them. Some of these issues have actually come up in discussions and community forums. It is really interesting to see what problems people want to solve. There are lots of other sustainability concerns out there, and I’m going to be doing survey work to try and gather all of these issues together so we can evaluate the best way to work those discussions into conservation curricula.

justine in lab

Wuebold at work at the The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. Photo credit Sibila Savage.

RS: Who will you be working with at the Cotsen Institute?

JW: I am going to expand on a bibliography that UCLA/Getty alumni and project advisor Geneva Griswold has already started.  I will be working most closely with project directors Professors Ellen Pearlstein and Glenn Wharton. And hopefully I will be able to bring in other contacts. I do have a bit of a network that I’ve built up over the last couple of years while .working in sustainability in conservation and collections care at Ki Culture, a nonprofit working to bridge culture and sustainability. I’ve been finding out who is really on the front lines of testing out sustainability curriculum.  Prof. Pearlstein has really set up a good foundation, and she’s already got sustainability readings in her curriculum. I’ve looked at her syllabi, and there’s a lot of very good information in there, as well as projects that students are working on specifically geared toward sustainability. I am also going to be investigating existing pilot programs, such as at the University of Glasgow in textile conservation and Queen’s University in Canada in paper conservation.

Prof. Pearlstein added that in her multi-listed collections care classes, she has “sought to introduce sustainable practices, challenging students to compare ideal, but energy-consumptive practices, against preservative practices that lower the carbon footprint. Being able to measure energy differentials between different environmental settings is crucial for collections care professionals, as are tools for comparing different materials and procedures that may be chosen for collection storage, transport, and treatment. Introducing in classes NEH-funded colleagues who are focused on Life Cycle Assessments for Conservation is another important part of my classes.”


RS: Have you personally seen any changes in these practices in the eight years you have been working as a professional?

JW: While I was at Ki Culture, we were growing a global network of people interested in this and working on initiatives to try to make the cultural heritage field a leader in sustainability. So I have seen changes as far as bringing sustainable tips and tricks to the business. There have also been some developments in testing alternative packing materials, like using mushroom-based foams. With new materials, we have to test that the material is compatible with the object and won’t cause accelerated aging or corrosion, for example. Some of the proposed materials have not passed those tests. In fact, often manufacturers will change the formula of materials over the years. So it is very complicated introducing the materials into museum spaces. Manufacturers are not usually super responsive, perhaps due to legal concerns. Sometimes, they will send you a sample, which is helpful. My co-director at Ki Culture has been very good about keeping the conversation going with manufacturers. But she’s in Germany, and the culture there is more open. There is more transparency between the manufacturers and their customers in Europe than in the U.S..

RS: What has been the history of bringing sustainability into the classroom?

JW: I am really interested in how we can start teaching about sustainability from the beginning. A lot of folks are taking it in a later stage of their careers during professional development classes, rather than during their first year of conservation. We want students to start thinking immediately about what they need to consider when using a treatment. One of my primary responsibilities during the initial phase of this research is to identify skills and knowledge needed by the next generation of conservators, conservation scientists, and conservations scholars to respond to climate change and other sustainability risks in humanities collections and at cultural heritage sites. Profs. Pearlstein and Wharton have already surveyed previous students about how they felt about bringing sustainability into the curricula, how it’s been taught, and how it’s going so far, as well as what they would like to see for the future. That provides a really good basis for me to look at how the students may feel about the courses. Hopefully I will be able to be in a classroom in person for a course in the winter to talk to students directly and get their input.

RS: You currently live in the Bay Area. When do you plan on moving down to L.A.?

JW: For the fall quarter, one of the things I am looking forward to is taking a class on environmental sustainability at UCLA to see what curriculum is already here that can be brought into conservation and possibly make it more interdisciplinary. I’ll also be able to attend one of Prof. Pearlstein’s courses in collections management. Then I’ll be able to compare the courses and see what we could potentially bring into the conservation curriculum.

RS: How did your interest in this particular area of conservation develop?

JW: As an undergrad, I got an art history degree. I discovered that I wanted to be more “hands on” with the artwork and found out about conservation. So I started working on the many prerequisites required to just get into a master’s program. I did enough internships to figure out that I really am a collection manager at heart. That’s a bit different from conservation, but it is still heavily concerned with the preservation of objects. I monitored the environment of the materials and the collection; looked for pests in storage spaces and conducted integrated pest management; evaluated climate and rehousing of objects as needed, even making new boxes for items. I also did condition assessments of objects, especially before they were put on exhibition or loaned out. One of the most important aspects about condition reporting is looking at an object before it leaves and when it returns from travel, not just searching for chips and dents, but also for insect debris that could have been brought back. I work in a private practice studio right now, and we actually have a focus on pest remediation. We create what’s called an anoxic bubble, where we suck out all the oxygen and pump in carbon dioxide so the insects will die over a period of about a month in this special chamber. Then we can vacuum them up and get rid of them entirely so the debris won’t attract other pests.

RS: And what brought you to UCLA for this project?

JW: A lot of my experience comes from volunteering with Ki Culture. To find an opportunity that was funded and allowed me to work directly with students was very exciting. It’s really hands-on work. It gives me a chance to move forward and connect with people. And hopefully the deliverable from all this research will be an open-source platform that other institutions can use. So it all sounds very magical to me that we can be helping in a global aspect for all these conservation programs.

RS: Another part of your job description is to examine the outcome of the sustainability survey conducted by the American Institute for Conservation’s Sustainability Committee in March 2020. What will that involve?

JW: I will be assessing and interpreting that survey to see how it could help us at UCLA. Teaching strategies I think are going to be very applicable. Other aspects will depend on what materials the conservation department here is focusing on. For example, the UCLA program focuses on objects and ethnographic and archaeological materials, but there are different teaching methods that could be applicable to textiles or paper.

RS: What other basic considerations are there?

JW: Climate will also definitely come into it. How you can adjust climate control in a space depends on how many different kinds of materials that you have stored in those spaces. Some of them can take different levels of temperature and humidity. So it becomes about finding that balance. And you have to start from the original site with the people who are packing it up. You have to address how items are packed, what materials they use, and the protocols for different materials. Sometimes objects require custom housing. And you’ll waste more material by making a custom box than if you use something more modular. Right now, I’ve only seen modular packing material for two-dimensional objects. For 3-D objects, it is much more difficult. We also have to consider whether an object is going directly into storage or going to go on display. Vibration is another main concern in transit in terms of how we cushion the object. We actually don’t want it to move around, but we also don’t want it to be super static. There’s a special balance between how static and how mobile the object is and what kind of transit it is making: is it flying or being trucked or sent by ship?

RS: The NEH initiative is conceived as a multi-year project. What efforts will you contribute to extend the project from its initial 18-month phase?

JW: I will be working on drafting a plan for the following three years of the initiative and drafting a grant proposal to support those years. Ellen and Glenn have already been very instrumental in looking for funding.

RS: Outside of your conservation activities, do you have any special interests?

JW: I’m really big on reading. I always check out more books from the library than I actually have time to read. So I’m actually enjoying the e-book phase of the pandemic. I especially like science fiction and historical fiction.  I guess that reflects my conservation foundation: science and history. My partner and I have also been biking everywhere. We went down to Half Moon Bay. We also have taken the train up to Davis and biked own to Napa. So we’ve really been getting out on our bikes. I lived in the L.A. area for about 10 months when I was doing internships, so I know there are some good places to ride down there. But getting our cat Waffles to adjust may be the biggest challenge.