Monday, April 27, 2009

Climate change and collections – are we stuffed?

When the effect of climate change on museums and collections hits the New York Times, it indicates that it is being taken seriously. On April 5th 2009 the NY Times ran an article entitled "Keeping Art, and climate, controlled”. It summarises the recent forum held in London at the National Gallery on climate change and collections masterminded by Jerry Podany, the President of IIC and the chief conservator at the Getty. It also discusses the initiative’ of Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate to re-examine the existing guidelines for collection care of 22 degrees C and 55% RH. It is clear that there is movement in the camp on this one, but the question is how fast is it going to happen. It may come down to the question of conservation, and conservators are by nature cautious. That’s how they are taught to view objects and potential treatments, and rightly so as despite the requirement of reversibility in all conservation treatments, in reality there is often no going back once a particular treatment has been decided upon.

So the recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald by John Collee, a medic turned climate change expert, makes bleak reading when he says: “the death of the Murray Darling, the drying of SE Australia to a tinderbox, the increased flooding of low lying areas, the defrosting of the Siberian tundra, the dramatic loss of rainforest, and the break up of the Antarctic ice shelf are happening as predicted but – if you believe the evidence - at several times the expected speed. I do believe the evidence. Which leads me, personally, to the bleak conclusion that the human race is stuffed.” Strong words, but it brings home that if we are going to avoid the said ‘stuffed’ state, we need to move a very great deal faster that we are at present.

So when it comes to discussing collections, we need to move quickly past the process of reviewing environmental guidelines and start looking at the whole carbon foot print of museums. If we have to wear coats in winter to save on heating fuel, and avoid the dryness that heating causes (and which then at present requires rehumidifaction to achieve required levels of RH), so be it.

But let’s get moving, past the discussion and into action. We have possibly only 6 years to radically lower emissions before we face calamitous and unstoppable global warming. Every sector must play its part, and museums have a very real opportunity to lead on this one

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