“How to Keep for a While What You Want to Keep For Ever”

The above is the title of a lecture given in 2005 by Tim Padfield, a chemist by training who works as a private consultant in preventive conservation, specifically museum microclimates; it’s a modest summation of what we’re about as conservators. Alessandro and I travelled to Copenhagen a few weeks ago to attend a course, Energy Efficient Museum Buildings, organized by Tim and Poul Klenz Larsen from the National Museum of Denmark, held at the School of Conservation of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. The aim of the week-long workshop was, “to inform conservators, curators and museum managers about the basic science of climate control and building construction, so that they become better equipped to discuss technical details of building projects with architects and engineers”.

Nationalmuseet - The National Museum of Denmark

We began the workshop by looking at several examples of new museum buildings, or additions to existing ones, and how the wish of the architects and administrators to create a visually striking structure sometimes compete with what’s in the best interest of the collections, at least from an environmental management standpoint. Light and bright designs that often take unconventional shapes are more difficult to control environmentally; in the example above, enclosing the space under glass that joins the new building to the old creates almost a greenhouse atmosphere.

Time and Poul wanted us to understand that the current British Standard for libraries and archives (BS5454-2000 Recommendations for the storage and exhibition of archival documents) is in need of revision because the parameters it sets for temperature and RH are impossible to maintain in practice, and although it was never meant to be taken as a specification, it has become a mandate in several UK authorities who licence storage facilities, and it’s something that architects and engineers like, because if they set themselves this numeric target, then they feel protected from litigation. Furthermore, there is no scientific data to show that if we don’t adhere to these exact guidelines, then our collections will be damaged; there is room for relaxing the standard. We had a lecture by Marion Mecklenburg, from the Smithsonian Conservation Institute, who talked about new environmental guidelines within the Smithsonian, from 50%RH +/- 5% and 21 degrees +/-1 Celsius to 45%RH +/- 8% and 21 degrees Celsius +/-2 degrees. This may not seem like much, but it results in a big savings in energy costs for the institution.

 

Precarious Display at the Museum of Industrial Culture in Brede (Brede Works)

I just included this photo because I thought it was funny; the case and its contents were moving from the vibrations cause by people walking around the exhibition – it was really visible. That reminds me that paper-based collections like libraries and archives, because of the hygroscopic nature of the materials, are natural humidity buffers; Tim warned us that environmental readings taken in an empty storage room will fluctuate more than in the same room once it’s filled with books, so to keep that in mind when considering new storage facillities…More on the course in subsequent posts…

 

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