Museums USA

Climate control: time to change the settings

A discussion organised by conservators last month revealed that few museums new or old maintain the narrow standards

Time to change the settings (Photo: flickr user mulmatsherm)

london. The environmental standards that museums try to maintain in their galleries and stores—and frequently demand of lenders—could be significantly revised, following a debate started in Milwaukee last month.

Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art—who has called for more flexibility in climate control standards (see link at left)—moderated the discussion, organised by the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) and the American Institute for Conservation (AIC). Anderson said that of over 100 conservators there, “next to no one challenged the panel’s basic conclusion: the majority of works in our collections can sustain greater ranges of relative humidity”.

Since the 1970s, an informal international standard has evolved that a range of 40% to 50% relative humidity and a temperature range of around 18ºC to 25ºC is required. The majority of new and renovated art museums have been designed to achieve this.

The Bizot Group of the world’s leading museums have been discussing a relaxation of this standard since 2008.

IIC bloggers recorded the panellists’ discussion during which it emerged that in reality probably few museums new or old managed to maintain the narrow standard year round. Stefan Michalski, a senior conservation scientist at the Canadian Conservation Institute, cited London’s British Museum, which already works to a wider benchmark of 40% to 60% relative humidity for much of its collection. “A change would be ratifying reality,” he said.

David Saunders, the British Museum’s keeper of conservation and scientific research, confirmed to us that three years ago it revised its internal guidelines and now cares for the “majority of its collection” to the wider standard. “We need to be smarter about this, rather than apply a blanket formula,” he said, adding that museums should “preach what they practise”.

This echoed Anderson’s opinion that the “missing ingredient” in the debate so far has been candour. It is unclear how museums are “controlling” their environments when accurate data is rarely disclosed to outside researchers. Jerry Podany, the president of the IIC and senior conservator of antiquities at Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum, summed up the debate: “The profession is progressing to a set of environmental guidelines that are more nuanced. It makes sense since the range of environmental conditions across the world is vast and dynamic, and the needs of collections and works of art are complex. It’s going to take new research and collaboration to resolve this since we do not want to go from one artificially simplistic and restrictive dogma to another that may prove too broad for some objects.”

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1 Jul 10
21:28 CET


I think the ranges may be able to be relaxed for certain items. That might allow us to be a little "greener" and use a little less of earths treasures while we care for our other treasures. However,comparing the handling standards in the "commercial gallery" to those in place in the museum sector is really a problem. The two exists at vastly different ends of the industry with vastly different goals. I would be hesitant to suggest that museums follow gallery standards of handling and packing.

7 Jun 10
16:40 CET


It is exactly for the reason that we are caring for these objects for the entire world that we require a higher standard for packing. These objects are not for sale. Unfortunately, some shippers and airline cargo personnel don't have those same standards.

6 Jun 10
17:17 CET


right on! Conservators are the biggest problem in Art Museums world wide... too proprietorial about "their" artworks and insistng on hypocritical standards that mean good works are not toured..when they are owned by ALL THE COUNTRY. The crating standards are ridiculous too...ask anyone who works in the commercial sector as I soon as a museum buys something it has to travel in crates when the artist and the commerical gallery always just use bubble and good handling

3 Jun 10
20:38 CET


No one has ever asked me for the climate data for the collection I monitor, but we can and do maintain the tighter standards set forth in the 1970s. And we ask borrowers to maintain those standards because they are the standards that we maintain.

3 Jun 10
15:2 CET


If museums and national galleries are already allowing their collections to be housed under a wider range of RH control, then why are some of these same museums and galleries insisting for a tight narrow range of RH control when they lend artefacts to other museums??

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