Sustainable Restoration Preserving Cultural Heritage

A greenhouse were needed plants are grown
At the Tectrad facilities, there is a greenhouse where plant species are grown that produce mucilage, saponin, and aromatic compounds. These can then be transformed into non-toxic, natural alternatives for intervening in cultural objects. | Photo (detail): © Tectrad

By studying the knowledge and traditional technologies of the native peoples of Mexico, a group of Mexican researchers found an alternative for conserving and intervening in cultural assets in a way that is ecologically and environmentally friendly.

By Lilian García-Alonso Alba

Throughout history, traditional technologies have provided sustainable alternatives for practices employed to conserve objects for common use, cultural practices, and rituals on a local level. However, despite the benefits that autochthonous knowledge and natural, plant-based technologies can offer, the use of these resources is limited in the field of art conservation.

In the intervention, conservation and storage of textile collections, paintings, wooden statues, musical instruments, documents and ethnographic material in museums and private collections, chemical industrial products derived from petroleum are generally used. In many cases, however, these are both unsuitable and harmful to health and the environment, because unless proper disposal of the toxic waste is ensured, rivers and arable soils are contaminated.  
  
There are incipient and localised efforts to gather, research, and selectively use some traditional, plant-based methods and materials to preserve objects in Southeast Asia, India, and Mexico. Yet, in conservation practices and methodologies in general, there continues to be extensive use of industrialised chemical products that are oil derivatives to treat and care for collections.

Traditional Technologies Are Placed under Scientific Rigour

In Mexico, particularly, these efforts are reflected in the configuration of the Laboratory of Traditional Technologies and Sustainability for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage (Tectrad, for its Spanish acronym) of the National School of Conservation, Restauration, and Museography (ENCRyM, for its Spanish initials) in Mexico City. Tectrad is a pioneer in Mexico’s academic field for focusing on the research and conservation of traditional technologies and natural materials along with promoting their use for restoring cultural heritage from a sustainable perspective.
 
  • Entrance to the Laboratory of Traditional Technologies and Sustainability for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage © Tectrad
    Entrance to the Laboratory of Traditional Technologies and Sustainability for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage (Tectrad, for its Spanish acronym) of the National School of Conservation, Restauration, and Museography (ENCRyM, for its Spanish initials) in Mexico City.
  • Lilian García-Alonso Alba, a cofounder of the lab, studies natural materials that can be sustainable alternatives for the treatment of cultural heritage in Mexico. © Tectrad
    Lilian García-Alonso Alba, a cofounder of the lab, studies natural materials that can be sustainable alternatives for the treatment of cultural heritage in Mexico.
  • Lilian García-Alonso Alba on a field trip with students from the laboratory. © Tectrad
    Lilian García-Alonso Alba on a field trip with students from the laboratory.
At the Tectrad facilities, there is a greenhouse where plant species are grown that produce mucilage, saponin, and aromatic compounds. These can then be transformed into adhesives, soaps, and non-toxic, natural alternatives for insect mitigation and intervention in cultural objects. They are traditional Mexican endemic materials that are part of our biocultural heritage and have been used since centuries before the Spanish conquest: agaves for washing clothing and the body, orchid bulbs and prickly pear cacti employed as adhesives and consolidating agents, and herbs used in censers to repel insects.

Following the tradition of using these plants, at Tectrad, we adapt traditional technologies, placing them under scientific rigour. For example, we studied and characterised mucilage from orchids as a wood adhesive and textile consolidating agent; we assessed cleaning with saponins from agavoideae in cotton and silks; we also examined the properties of mucilage from prickly pear cacti as an additive to soil mortars, and, recently, we worked on applying hydrolates from endemic flowers to control pests in archaeological textiles and woods.

Care of Immaterial Heritage

Based on the cultivation and study of these plants, a self-sustaining production system is currently being developed in the greenhouse by growing specimens of producer plants and, through their ecological reintegration, taking advantage of their use and valuation as Mexican biocultural heritage. The idea is also to identify natural materials in pre-Hispanic pieces so their derivative products can be used in the conservation interventions of different cultural assets.

Studying these materials and methods does not only offer a sustainable alternative for the treatment of cultural heritage in general, but it simultaneously promotes the care of immaterial heritage and traditional practices. Finally, the preservation and practice of traditional technologies has a direct impact on recovering biocultural heritage because it fosters the use of organic, non-toxic Mexican materials and also reinforces and defends a holistic and community-based approach.