Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Changing environmental guidelines for museums

I have been chairing a taskforce for AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material) for the last eighteen months on changing guidelines for environmental conditions for museums. We’ve collated a pile of material on what is happening around Australia and in the world in this most interesting space. It is driven by a combination of rising energy costs (as much as 70% of museum expenses post salaries are spent on energy, most of it running climate control systems), reducing budgets and the need to be and to be seen to be environmentally conscious.

The opportunity for using these circumstances to relax the tight parameters that are currently stipulated for the display and storage of museum collections (typically 20 degrees C +/- 10% and 50% RH +/- 10% ) is being welcomed by some conservators and regarded with suspicion by others. The reality is that only a few types of materials really require these tight levels and we have ended up in a position where they are stipulated as a blanket condition for all collections. But as for coming up with new guidelines around potentially more relaxed conditions, in reality we can only move in Australia as fast as the rest of the world. As a net borrower of artworks and objects we must provide exhibition space that accords with international environmental parameters.

So it is very good news to have at last the UK’s latest thinking on these issues just published in the British Standards Institute’s PAS ( Publically Available Specification) 198 – Specification for environmental conditions for cultural collections.

Whilst these new specifications do not lay down the final rules on the new parameters (that will come in the British Standard) what they are saying is:

  • Collecting institutions need to acknowledge that attempts to establish a universal safe zone has resulted in unsafe conditions for atypical collections and unsustainable use of energy
  • The new parameters will not be narrowly prescriptive and will allow an acceptable degree of deterioration/loss
  • They will take into account the use of energy to maintain the collection environment
  • They will require decision making on environmental parameters to consider energy usage data, expected usage of collection items, and include a risk assessment
  • They will include as integral to the package of environmental parameters acceptable levels of light and pollution
We are busy writing the first draft of the AICCM Guidelines right now and hope to have them widely promulgated by the end of the year. We have even submitted them to the MAGNA Sustainability Project Awards at this year’s Museums Australia conference in Perth.

I will keep you posted as to when these are publically available.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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