The Plus/Minus Dilemma

For the AIC 2010 Annual Meeting in Milwaukee, the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) partnered with AIC to bring together a panel of experts for a roundtable discussion about environmental guidelines in museums and archives.  The accepted, current environmental standard is Temp 70 deg F +/-  and RH 50% +/-.  Roundtable participants considered whether this standard was “reasonable, well-based, and understood.”

Maxwell L. Anderson, the Melvin & Bren Director and CEO, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana (moderator).

Anderson’s commentary focused on the need for candor in the field about how successfully we are actually hitting the standard temperature and RH goals.  Anderson suggested that few institutions actually achieve the standard, and that discussions about “longevity, currency, and energy efficiency” would benefit from honest disclosure about actual ranges.  He encouraged flexibility among the key players — conservators, engineers, and administrators — and raised the dilemma of using HVAC systems designed for human comfort to serve preservation needs.

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

Bell spoke of environmental standards in “an age of energy restraint.”  For the next 5 years, research in the UK will be directed toward materials science and the impact of environmental standards on materials.

Cecily M. Grzywacz, Conservation scientist specializing in preservation environments and collaborator in the ASHRAE guidelines for museum environments.

Grzywacz emphasized that there is “no 70/50 doctrine;” rather, we have all collectively assumed this as our standard over the last few decades.  Grzywacz drew a chuckle from the crowd with the apt observation that “loans are not a spa vacation for our collections.”  In other words, it is unreasonable to demand tighter standards for loaned materials than an owning institution can maintain at home.  The implementation of reasonable environmental standards requires an “integrated design approach,” working with security, public services, preservation, and building maintenance services in concert.

Stefan Michalski, Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Research, the Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa.

Michalski appreciated the “wisdom of fingers and eyes,” noting how much can be learned tactilely and visually from collection materials and their environments.  He also reminded the audience that sustainability is a global, local, and personal concern.

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

Stothart spoke from an operational perspective.  She noted the importance of exhibitions to public perception and fundraising in museums, and how these impact core operations.  The “Big 3” of museum operations, as Stothart indentified them, include exhibition programming, preservation, and research.  Environmental norms figure prominently in exhibition planning and execution, which comprise a multi-million dollar business in insurance alone.  Stothart described the Canadian “winter setback strategy,” which maintains a temperature of 71 deg F +/- year round, but decreases standard RH to 44% in winter, allowing for a 2 month ramping up or winding down period.  The winter setback strategy also makes use of microclimate solutions wherever possible.

Terry Drayman-Weisser, Director of Conservation and Technicial Research, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland.

Drayman-Weisser makes recommendations on environmental standards to her museum operators from a conservator’s perspective.  She offered the opinion that we are being encouraged to accept broader environmental standards because this more relaxed scenario eases the strain on museum budgets.  Extreme fluctuations outside accepted ranges, warned Drayman-Weisser, do cause damage, and this damage has been witnessed in sensitive materials.  At this time, the argument that conservators are clinging to outdated, rigidly narrow standards has not been fully supported by the research.  Drayman-Weisser insisted that further research is needed to model the high complexity of actual works of art before we abandon our current standards; however, she tempered her position by recognizing that not all objects require the same level of environmental control.

The full transcript of the roundtable discussion should be available within the next few weeks at both the IIC: Dialogues and AIC websites.

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