3rd Roundtable on Environmental Guidelines

3rd IIC Roundtable on Environmental Guidelines

“The Plus/Minus Dilemma: The Way Forward in Environmental Guidelines”

Thursday, May 13, 2010, 4:30-6:00 PM


Maxwell Anderson, Director/CEO of Indianapolis Museum of Art

Nancy Bell, Head of Conservation Services, National Archives, London, and Principle Investigator of the Environments, Guidelines, Opportunities and Risks (EGOR) Initiative

Karen Colby Stothart, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Installations, National Gallery of Canada

Cecily Grzywacz, Conservation Scientist, Chair of ASHRAE Committee on Museums, Galleries, Archives and Libraries

Stefan Michalski, Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Research, Canadian Conservation Institute

Terry Drayman-Weisser, Director of Conservation and Technical Research, Walters Art Museum

The roundtable opened with an introduction by Jerry Podany who questions the standard RH&T, parameters set long ago that need to be re-examined due to pragmatic needs and concerns for natural resources as new studies move us forward. Museum directors, conservators, scientists and collections professionals are working together to look at new opportunities that will help us maintain and promote more sustainable environments.

Maxwell Anderson then spoke, emphasizing the importance in the dilemma between longevity of cultural heritage, the costs, energy and ultimate carbon footprint involved in maintaining the collections. The consumption of energy and cost to consume the energy have been irrelevant. We need candor and flexibility in the face of reality- we cannot control our climate as we would like to.

Nancy Bell discussed developments in the UK, their initiative for environmental standards and cultural heritage. How would she advise? Catalysts for change: include challenges to conservation, develop research clusters and environmental guidelines. Look at the acceptable levels of damage in our cultural heritage. We need to develop environmental standards.

Karen Colby outlined the environmental guidelines at the National Gallery in Canada over the past 15 years. She stresses flexibility and the potential for less rigid standards in environmental control. In Canada there are remote venues and long distances between venues, seasonal extremes in temperature. Their strategy is to keep the RH between 50 and 44% with a 2-month period of ramping up and down. Special exhibits can be zoned. They circulate their collection with 20 to 25 exhibitions each year so flexibility is needed.

Cecily Crzywacz -analytical chemist for ASHRAE. There is no standard written for temperature and relative humidity, no definite answer to how to use RH&T and how to protect art.

There is a need to modify the historic HVAC systems. Engineers need to be included in the discussions and informed of an interdisciplinary approach. We need to work towards an integrated building design and engineer approach. Object conservators are important for the understanding of a dialogue with directors and administration as they decide how to preserve energy. Don’t compromise your collection to save money. If you purchase an object you are making a long-term commitment to preserve it for the future.

Stephan Michalski discussed an overview of items that are important to environmental change, developments towards saving energy including the new 2011 edition of ASHRAE with a section on museum environmental control, and issues that need careful attention and understanding.

Stephan believes that one of the most important aspects of controlling RH is its function to control mold growth. Cold storage is best to prevent mold growth, though many museums do not choose this.

Choosing relative humidity settings for museum settings is generally easy with fluxes of +/- 10% as acceptable. Temperature is not important – it is mostly for human comfort. In the British Museum the reality is that they couldn’t avoid the range of 40-60%.

The biggest challenge is to choose an appropriate RH for artwork made of mixed materials – with regards to how the materials individually expand and contract. When the materials are mismatched the expansion and contraction causes stress and cleavage.

Terry Weiser brings up the challenge and importance for conservators to evaluate museum climate standards. The climate change conference IIC in London 2008, and the MFA 2010 meeting led to a re-evaluation of new standards with broader RH and T standards, which is good for the global movement of the green standards.

At the Walters they have begun to move set points, use less reactive materials and change to climate controlled vitrines.

Terry is not convinced that the wider RH parameters are ok. She is concerned that in tests we can’t model the reality of what objects have been through and it is premature to assume we know enough about hygroscopic materials. We have to evaluate the damage that happens to art at high RH with regards to dirt accumulation and pest control. Some objects/materials only need mold growth protection.

Many more objects will need microclimates as we replace case control for efficiency in environmental control. This will create more waste, require more energy and materials as we produce (and eventually change and dispose of) more storage and display cases.

Terry stresses, very thoughtfully the need to judiciously use the wider RH parameters and the need for controlled research. She alludes to the strong past trend for strict environmental control, which has now changed. We need to make our next steps as educated, well-informed professionals. Our guidelines form trends that can have strong repercussions.

Sarah Nunberg, The Objects Conservation Studio, LLC, Brooklyn, NY

June 5, 2010