The first key issue is how we make decisions about the care of collections as we move to more relaxed environmental standards in museums. There is no doubt that we are going to have to move away from the current very tight parameters that are dictated for temperature, relative humidity and light levels, as these are environmentally unsustainable. But we cannot expect to do this without there being some collateral damage to objects.
Three questions arise.
Firstly, what is going to be acceptable damage? We use the term 'the damage equation' to describe the dilemma, but we have not yet assessed what is going to be our, and the community's, tolerance for seeing things deteriorate.
Secondly, how are we going to measure this damage? This is a somewhat easier question to answer in that it just requires us to develop both the technology, and as importantly, the language to describe this damage. For instance the profession has already established one way of measuring levels of light damage (to get technical – a JNF, or ‘Just Noticeable Fade').
But this leads onto the third question, which is what is our role in deciding this? There has already been a benchmark set of one JNF per generation, i.e. every 25 years, but who are we to decide this is acceptable?
The second key issue is how we are going to make decisions about where our finite resources (conservators and funds) are best used. To give a health parallel, many medical decisions are made either in triage form (at the site of an accident for instance) or at a funding level on quality of life (e.g. are funds better spent keeping one brain dead person on life support for many years as against being able to treat many people with a curable disease). As conservators, we also use the triage concept when deciding what to treat with flood or fire damaged objects. What we are less good at doing is making big decisions about collections – are we better to treat a single object to the nth degree when with the same amount of resources we could stabilise and extend the lives of 100 other objects.
As conservators, our interests and our training both tend to focus us on the detail, rather than on the big picture. I believe that in order to address both of these issues, we conservators are going to need to take a more expansive and contextual viewpoint much more often.