Thursday, February 26, 2009

Are energy savings in museums now out the window?

I keep reading in the mainstream press that the financial meltdown is going to significantly set back the course of combating global warming, as economies battle to avoid the ravages of recession.

But I think there is a ray of hope in the museum area, namely the potential to reduce energy consumption. Whether or not this is driven by environmental or ethical concerns, museums are at last addressing for the potential cost savings how they combat their love of highly controlled air conditioning systems.

Alright, I plead guilty to being a conservator, the profession that has largely dictated the need for these controls to provide stable environment for collections. But we have done so driven by our mandate to ensure the preservation of these collections and rarely had push-back from the engineers as to the cost of doing so. I wonder how many conservators have ever had a conversation with their museum finance department about the energy cost of achieving the recommended levels of climate control.

But like it or not, we now need to engage, not least to play our part in cutting energy costs. Solar panels and rooftop wind turbines are all well and good but they are expensive to buy and install. In the first instance let’s look at providing low-tech solutions such as proposing double sets of entry doors to keep out the heat and cold, or ensuring all wet coats and brollies are left in cloakrooms to reduce the load on dehumidification systems.

Monday, February 23, 2009

What financial crisis?

There was a great piece in the Sydney Morning Herald recently by my friend Kirk Huffman on how the good citizens of Vanuatu are happily continuing their traditional lives un affected by the financial turmoil sweeping the world.

Kirk is a fascinating person who works both at the Australian Museum and that little gem of Sydney University’s, the Macleay Museum. Kirk introduced me to the world of Vanuatu and its extraordinary culture, which partly results from the unique occurrence of being a dual colony of both Britain and France for almost a hundred years. This not only resulted in a mad arrangement of dual everything (currency, postal system, prisons, courts etc) but left the inhabitants so bemused that they just got on with their lives as per normal and left the colonial powers to squabble amongst themselves. The result was that when independence came, they still had in tact almost all of their ancient culture.

What is so interesting is that they have undertaken a program of capturing that culture on tape and video through an intensive program of using local volunteers armed with tape recorders before it is lost due to modernisation. These 7000 tapes are all kept at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Port Vila. But in a world where we are talking of making culture truly universally accessible through the web, the people of Vanuatu have drawn a line and decided that these tapes are for internal access only. That is they have led the world in getting their culture captured in a recorded form, but are now also leading the world in saying what makes us unique does not to need to be shared with the world, but rather only with its own citizens to ensure it is not lost or forgotten.

An interesting perspective as we hurtle down the open access highway.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Energy consumption in museums and galleries– what can we do about it?

Giving the IIC Forbes Lecture in 2004 Andreas Burmester, the director of the Doerner Institute in Munich, obliquely identified where he felt that current environmental standards for museums and galleries were going wrong. He had just finished acting as consultant to a new art gallery in Munich, the Museum Brandhorst, and had realised he had unwittingly been part of creating an unsustainable example of an environmentally controlled space.

Whilst the standard parameters he had dictated for climate and light levels( 22 degrees C, 55% RH, 50 lux for works on paper etc) had been achieved, the cost of maintaining them in a heavily glazed modern building, is massive. In addition, the technology involved, using computerised louvres and a vast HVAC plant, meant that the moment there was a powercut the entire system would close down and the building would essentially become an oven in summer and a freezer in winter. Contrast this with the existing 19th century art gallery, the Alte Pinakothek, which is not only extremely efficient to heat by hot air from the boilers in the cellars radiating up through the walls, but also thanks to its 6 ft thick walls, able to maintain internal conditions should there be a power cut for a significant time thanks to the thermal mass of the building.

But where to now, having created the international environmental standards that any self respecting gallery must comply with in order to be eligible for loans? The bad news is that there is unlikely to be any immediate loosening of these standards. However the possible good news is that the UK Council of Museum Directors have commissioned a review of the standards in the light of the energy requirements that result from them, and MAY end up recommending some relaxation of them.

Meanwhile, there is lots of good stuff going on at an individual institutional level to see how energy costs can be reduced, whilst maintaining acceptable conditions for storage and display of collections, the so called ‘preservation equation’. Both the National Museum of Australia and the Australian War Memorial have undertaken significant research into the capacity of various material types to cope with more relaxed environmental standards. And the State Library of Victoria experimented with turning its HVAC system in the book stacks off in October 2008 to gauge the effect on the environment and energy savings.

We’ve teamed up with leading environmental engineers Steensen Varming to help institutions look at ways in which they can potentially reduce their energy costs whilst still maintaining their collections in optimum conditions, and I expect to be writing more about this shortly.

Friday, February 13, 2009

What does climate change mean for collections?

Jerry Podany, the dynamic President of the International Institute for Conservation of historic and artistic works (more easily known as IIC), is keen to get conservators addressing and indeed leading on some of the key issues confronting collections.

In September 2008 I helped Jerry organise an IIC public ‘dialogue’ (the first of a number we hope) between experts on the theme of climate change and collections. It was an exhilarating evening at the National Gallery in London with the auditorium overflowing. For my money, the most significant contributions were from May Cassar, Director for Sustainable Heritage at University College London, and Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate Museum.

Serota has clearly got the message that we all need as museum professionals to be seeing what we can do, and through the UK Council of Museum Directors, he has initiated a review of environmental conditions for collections.

Cassar has been in this space for a long time (she published Museums Environment and Energy in 1994), and is an exhilarating person to spend half an hour with, as I was lucky enough to do the day before the dialogue, as she is so knowledgeable in this area. She is leading the UK’s research into what can be done to confront the cultural and physical challenges of the 21st century which incidentally, although it is funded by the European Community, can partner with organisations worldwide.

The dialogue managed to get most of the basic facts on the table, of which to be honest there are not many, as there is surprisingly little data about how well collections will really cope with climate change. We know a bit about how buildings react, but very little about the things stored or displayed inside them.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Where to for museums in the next 25 years?

I’ve come across a wonderful paper just published by the American Association of Museums entitled “Museums and Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures”. I love these future prediction papers. One of my favourite books in the 1990s was “Megatrends 2000” which tried to predict what the 2000s would look like – it got it right on some things but missed out on a few minor issues like the rise of the web and financial meltdown.

However, that book only looked 10 years ahead whereas this paper is looking 25 years on. So, what does it say? Amongst others:
  • A substantial increase in the post retirement population will need museums to rethink how they use volunteers and have exhibit labels in larger print and museums more easily navigable by wheelchair.
  • The current recession may prove to be more than a blip and museums are going to be called upon to play a greater role in sustaining community well-being during a prolonged downturn.
  • As the world continues to go digital and progressively virtual museums will play an even more critical role as purveyors of the authentic, addressing a human desire for the real.
  • Significant new economic value will be produced by creative pursuits and museums will play a vital role in incubating and nurturing such activities. As repositories of knowledge, museums will be sources of inspiration for creative endeavour.

All good stuff. Let’s see where we are in 25 years.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Are conservators keeping up with museum trends?

As co editor of the AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material) Newsletter, I recently reprinted an article from the UK Institute for Conservation’s journal by Helen Hughes in which she berated UK conservators. Here’s a taste of what she said:

"British conservators appear to be adhering to the three myths of late twentieth-century conservation; the concept of ‘minimal intervention’ – (minimal intervention to achieve what exactly?); the idea of ‘one standard of work’ which is based on a taboo of any value judgements; and the lie of ‘irreversibility’ (please name a reversible procedure). Conservators, entrapped by vocabularies and terminologies, hold it as a tenet of faith that they ‘are not restorers’, but then happily engage in aesthetic infilling and retouching and see no contradiction between their words and actions. Owners, who want to use or enjoy the objects they bring to the conservator are often viewed as ‘the enemy’ instead of allies and partners."

Such comments have been around for years. Conservators (and I write as one) are taught to concentrate on the single object or groups of objects - the detail, if you like, rather than the bigger picture. As a result we have sometimes been categorised as myopic and unable to fully appreciate broader issues in cultural heritage management; hence the basis for some of the criticisms in the UK article.

However it was heartening to see the response from conservators themselves that the criticisms did not hold for Australian conservators, and that we have moved on from these positions. The only note of discord was from a heritage architect agreeing with much of what was said, implying that though we may feel good about ourselves, we still have a way to go with our allied professionals to convince them.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What you can find in a museum cleaners vacuum bag?

Associated Press reported just before Christmas 2008 that a $15,000 diamond had been ‘found’ by cleaners at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A closer reading of the story revealed that it must have first been ‘lost’ by its owner, as it was ‘found’ by the cleaners by combing through the detritus of 4 vacuum bags. Apparently the one-carat stone had fallen out of one Catherine Hart’s ring during a ‘Night at the Museum’ sleepover. News must have been short that day, because we also learnt that Hart was 59, thrilled to have recovered the diamond, which her husband gave her in 2000, and intends to give it to her granddaughter someday. She was even quoted as saying the episode showed ‘the diamond is forever, it really is, because it came back to me”.

Setting aside the questionable sense of a New York matron sleeping in a semi-public place with a loosely attached diamond, it got me thinking about whether I would like to sleep over in a museum, and if so which one. I rather enjoyed the Ben Stiller movie Night at the Museum, especially the cameo performance of Ricky Gervais as the museum’s director. It’s the ultimate interactive museum where everything comes alive, from battlefield dioramas to dinosaurs. It reflects I am sure a deep seated desire amongst many museum goers to see more than static exhibits, a process becoming increasingly realisable through the work of the likes of Sarah Kenderdine at the Museum of Victoria (the Virtual Room) and Peter Morse, Visualisation consultant at UNSW.

But where might I like to bed down? First choice would have to be the King’s Library at the British Museum, not only because of its extraordinary beauty and proportions as a room, but also because of the gorgeously eclectic selection of objects displayed in it – a ’cabinet of curiosities’ on a grand scale. Both at night time and during the day it is a space to be wallowed in. Closer to home, the Boiler Hall at the Powerhouse Museum is not only a great space, but from day one of its opening under Lindsay Sharp in 1988 dedicated to the theme of transport it has had some of my favourite museum objects on display from the Catalina to the Central Station destination board. I would happily camp there for a night.