Aligning Vision, Environmental Sustainability, and Heritage Preservation

Sarah W. Sutton
Principle, Sustainable Museums, and Chapel Sustainability Consultant

When it became clear to art conservator Sarah Nunberg that the lighting, along with the heating and cooling system, in Chapel of the Good Shepherd was contributing to the deterioration of Louise Nevelson’s sculpture, she and the team from Saint Peter’s Church began looking for solutions. They needed an approach to solve the problems for the long-term, and they needed to find funding for the improved care. Nunberg knew that the museum field had been exploring new approaches to designing and managing systems for controlling the conditions for collections items, and that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) had a program to support that work: Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections.

There is a beautiful alignment between the goals of environmental sustainability and the goal of protecting national heritage materials. Both value the needs of future generations by managing costs and environmental impacts to ensure survival of that which we value most. Creating the proper conditions for temperature, humidity and lighting that support long-term survival of sensitive objects can have high energy costs. Recent developments in efficient systems and in understanding of historic works of art have created new opportunities to make this work more effective and affordable. That is the kind of work the NEH wishes to support. It “encourages preservation strategies that pragmatically balance effectiveness, cost, and environmental impact.” It supports “projects that aim to mitigate the greatest risks to collections…and that are designed to be as cost effective, energy efficient and environmentally sensitive as possible.”[i]

To design the best care for Chapel of the Good Shepherd, the team of engineers, architects, conservators and church staff developed an approach that would improve energy efficiency in the system and the building envelope, improve the lighting, and maintain the setting as the artist intended. The multidisciplinary nature of that team contributed to a design that considers as many aspects of possible in concert, not in isolation. That is how many of the strengths of a sustainability project are created. I worked with the church and Sarah Nunberg to submit a grant application in December of 2017. We were successful and the grant project began this fall.  In the highly-competitive grant process the project and proposal earned across-the-board ratings of “Excellent” and a note that “this project will have an excellent return on investment for NEH.” We are proud to have the support of NEH. And we know it will have an excellent return on investment for visitors to the chapel and the church, for the city of New York, and for legacy of Louise Nevelson.

[i] (Nadina Gardner, director of the NEH’s Division of Preservation and Access, The Green Museum 2nd edition by, Sarah Brophy & Elizabeth Wylie, p. 227.)

Saint Peter's Church