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
By Javier Pes. Museums, Issue 214, June 2010
Published online: 02 June 2010
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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