The Birth of Ki Culture

Ki Culture’s history is strictly connected with her founder — and now Executive Director — Caitlin Southwick. After studying stone conservation for nine years in Italy, Caitlin had the chance to take part in some of the most exciting conservation projects known to man: from being in the first team that ever went to Rapa Nui to conserve the Moai statues, to working at the Getty Conservation Center in Los Angeles, in two of the most important museums in Italy: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and, most recently, the Vatican Museums in 2020.

Like many great stories, Caitlin’s passion for art started when she was just a child and had the opportunity to visit some of the most phenomenal museums in the world with her parents. Growing up, she wanted to make sure that one day some other little girl could experience the same cathartic feeling that she had when admiring Greek and Roman statues at the Louvre Museum. This urge was one of the many sparks that led her to become a conservator.

At the same time, growing up near the lush woods of Colorado, she always felt deeply connected with nature and aware of the environmental cause. Caitlin was just eight years old when she was invited to the White House and wrote former President Bill Clinton a letter saying, with the faithful and confident directness that children have, that she would like him to stop the pollution. He responded, letting little Caitlin know that pollution was of great importance. She’s kept that letter — framed! — ever since.

Fast forward twenty years — after three years of studying in Italy — she was studying her Masters in conservation at Cardiff University. A specific episode lit the spark that, years later, would lead to the foundation of Ki Culture. One day, looking at a trash can in the conservation lab, she realized it was full of disposable gloves: something not only unnecessarily wasteful but also against her own ethics and principles. She started pursuing a little research project and after three months she found various solutions, inspired from the University of Edinburgh Chemistry Department who had implemented a glove recycling program. She started looking for ways that could mitigate glove waste, but soon realized that all these solutions were hardly accessible to her, as a student, or to anybody, really.

Conscious of the fact that conservators must inevitably make use of large quantities of toxic chemicals and foams, Caitlin started to promote the idea of ‘going green’ and bringing sustainability into the conservation practice at Cardiff University.

Given the difficulty of finding resources online, she took the initiative and founded Sustainability in Conservation (SiC) in 2016 with the aim of creating a resource center and network where people could ask questions, share practices, and talk about sustainability. She started an SiC Facebook group that grew immediately, but the problem was that she was the only person posting anything. Caitlin realised then that there was surely a demand for the resources she, too, was looking for, but nobody had the answers.

She started taking SiC to various conferences, the last of which was the triennial International Council of Museums’ Conservation Committee (ICOM-CC) conference in Denmark in 2017 (the apex of the triennial activity of the ICOM-CC). There, she met the former ICOM president Suay Aksoy, who was intrigued by her ideas and passion, and asked her to be part of a new Working Group on sustainability that ICOM was putting together. Caitlin thought that this was finally what she was looking for: ICOM, the international authority of museums, had to be able to lead the way through sustainability in the cultural world!

Since then, Caitlin Southwick has been serving in the role of Secretary for the ICOM Working Group. Not only does she describe this position as a great honor, but it has also taught her an incredibly valuable thing, which is the essential principle of Ki Culture itself: sustainability means different things for different people. From a Western context like the one she came from, it mainly means climate change, global warming and so on, but having more global colleagues she learned that it also means social justice and human rights, since climate and people are completely interconnected.

Despite the incredibly positive experience, Caitlin saw that there were a few bottlenecks holding things up: one of the biggest ones was that there was never enough time. The first was that all the professionals were volunteers with their own jobs, and it was never easy to prioritize the Working Group. The second big problem was that they were not experts: among all those culture professionals, there was no true expert on sustainability. Additionally, there was a huge lack of communication when trying to bring sustainability into the cultural sector: there were many great initiatives all around the world, but people were not working together! It seemed a shame that there was very little collaboration and sharing of best practices. While there was a lot of talk wanting to do that, no one had the chance to really do anything about it. That’s when Caitlin realized that someone had to take the initiative and be the person to do it, full-time. That’s how Ki Culture was born!

Ki Culture became an official non-profit in January 2020 with ANBI status in the Netherlands. And wow, has it been an incredible journey: from November 2019, when it was just Caitlin Southwick and Georgina McDowall — now Exhibitions Ki Book Director — at a shared co-working space in Amsterdam, to now with over 100 volunteers in every corner of the world, motivated to make this happen.

This post was transcreated from this video by Virginia Vannucchi.



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Ki Culture

Sustainability is the future. Culture is the key. We are Ki Culture.