Judith Bannerman and a team of researchers at the Tate, London have been developing microclimate frames to reduce fading and preserve sensitive works of art, particularly photographs and works on paper. While we know that light fades materials and low-oxygen environments can reduce this phenomenon, the research team set out to design a functional microclimate frame and then measure the impact of various environments on sensitive works of art.
First, the microclimate frames were introduced; the frames are designed to be versatile, compact, reusable, and fit into existing installations and frames. Following a conference at the Tate in September, 2011, the frames should be commercially available through KeepSafe Microclimate Systems in 3 sizes: A1 (841 x 594 mm / 33.11″ x 23.39″), A2 (594 x 420 mm / 23.39″ x 16.54″), and A3 (420 x 297 mm / 16.54″ x 11.69″). The frames allow for easy access to the gas valves and artwork for unframing while maintaining a good seal through a sandwich design with the use of elastomer “o” rings. Questions were raised about the composition of the elastomer and adhesives used in the frames, and while they could not be disclosed at this point, Judith assured that more technical information would be available after the patents are finalized.
With their prototype frames, the Tate began to study the impact of various oxygen levels and relative humidities on the fading of various art materials. Three oxygen levels were chosen: air at 21% oxygen, hypoxia at 4-6% oxygen, and anoxia at 0-1% oxygen. Temperature and humidity (at 40% and 50% RH) were monitored inside the frames during testing, and a microfadeometer with a 0.4mm spot size was used to study the accelerated fading of various materials. Generally, when the oxygen level was brought to 5%, the fading was halved for most materials at both 40% and 50% RH, but at 0% oxygen some materials improved slightly while others faded more. The study determined that 5% oxygen at 40%RH was best for a work on paper with iron gall ink and a dyed basket, and 0% oxygen at 50% RH was best for the digital photographs tested. Some composite objects, like the iron gall ink on paper, required a compromise since one set of conditions might reduce the fading of one component but increase the fading of another. During the question period, someone mentioned that some pigments fade more rapidly in anoxic conditions, so it is important to remember that conditions should be carefully considered for each object.
Future topics of research include studying long-term display or storage in the microclimates and pressure-testing the frames. They may also develop larger cases for objects, but at this time the three frame sizes are slated to be available in September.