Thursday, July 19, 2012

Environmental Guidelines for museums - an update

I helped convene a seminar at the Australian Museum ten days ago entitled “ Sustainable Buildings for Sustainable Collections – we talk the talk, but can we walk the walk? The impetus for the event came from Morten Rhyl –Svendsen being in Sydney. Morten is from the Danish National Museum, an organisation which has led the way over the last decade in researching and more importantly publishing findings on the optimum method to store museum collections when combining the needs of the objects with energy saving opportunities. Tim Padfield established the Research Centre in the 1970s and Morten is part of the next generation of researchers who are taking the lead in this important area, so it was great to hear where that research is heading.

This is now about not just relaxed temperature and relative humidity parameters, but also about the number of air exchanges, the amount of recycled as against fresh air and isoperms - the rate of decay of objects as determined by the temperature and RH in which they are stored, e.g an object that will last 100 years at an average storage temperature of 22C will last 1000 years at a  temp of 15C. Check out a rather complicated explanation of isoperms here.  

Morten’s keynote was followed by a series of short talks on the science of sustainable environments for museums and the interaction that is required between conservators (determining what climate variance objects can cope with), building managers (advising what climate controls the museum's HVAC system can deliver), and visitor services staff (stating what climate variances visitors will put up with).  

What became clear to me is that the conservator/building manager relationship, where it works well, can deliver some real wins in this area. But the big decisions on the carbon footprint of the institution have to be made at executive level, and the good news is that whilst the debate to date may only have had passing resonance with this level, now that energy cost increases are really beginning to bite, they are sitting up and being prepared to listen. The work that the State Library of Victoria has been undertaking quietly but progressively in very substantially reducing the reliance on HVAC systems to maintain an appropriate environment for the Library's book storage areas has finally gained the attention of the Library's Governing Council.

However the question that I continue to be asked is when are the new relaxed parameters for temperature and RH going to be released. It's a fair call as the AICCM Task force for Guidelines for Museums and Galleries, which I chair, is long overdue in delivering these. As I pointed out in a previous blog this is partly due to the position the National Gallery in the UK is taking by if anything hardening their position. But the reality as I always now spell out is that we have now moved beyond dictating prescriptive blanket conditions and into an era of making evidence-based decisions on what is right for a collection or museum. This means that we have got to understand the particular vulnerabilities and risks of our collections  and the environmental performance capabilities of our buildings and HVAC plant.

That's a daunting task if you are a small regional museum or gallery, but the good news is that there is an increasing amount of literature available to guide you through the process, and the outcome will mean you have a much more in-depth knowledge of the physical state of your collections and the capabilities of your buildings.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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