Symposium of Collections Environments

The Symposium on Collections Environments was proposed to critically evaluate the present standards and recommendations for all aspects of the collections environments and to discuss the potential impact of recent research results.

Light, air pollution, temperature and humidity are the major environmental contributors to the deterioration of objects in museum collections and their component materials, through chemical, biological and mechanical processes. The most commonly espoused standards for the collection environment, especially for temperature and relative humidity, which date back almost twenty years, were formulated largely on the basis of practical experience and an understanding of the processes involved that was largely qualitative rather than quantitative. Adopting a "better safe than sorry" approach, the conservation community often interpreted these standards quite narrowly, insisting on very tightly controlled environments. While this undoubtedly has contributed notably to the preservation of collections, it also requires investments in the requisite climate control systems and, especially in the case of historic buildings, which often house significant collections, it can lead to serious damage to the structure. Extreme differentials between the outside environment and a tightly controlled interior climate can drive large quantities of water through the walls, in one direction or the other, and especially if this is accompanied by condensation within the walls, great harm can result to the building fabric.

These realizations, and a better quantitative understanding of the deterioration mechanisms fueled by research such as that at SCMRE, have led to the recognition of the need to reevaluate the standards for the collection environment. In practice, often there has already been a relaxation of these standards in individual cases, especially for collections housed in historic structures. Also, the financial burdens of installing and maintaining a full-fledged climate control system can exceed the capabilities of smaller institutions, and it is better to do the best possible than, in frustration at not being able to adhere to the strictest standards, to do nothing.

A recent symposium organized by SCMRE with financial support from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, served to bring a wide variety of experts together to assess if and how, based on the recent research and experiences and the state-of-the-art in environmental control engineering, the standards could and should be reformulated. In order to provide a forum that encouraged an open discussion, the format of the meeting was based on that of the so-called "Gordon Conferences" in the physical and natural sciences: participation was by invitation only, there was no audience and the proceedings of the discussions were not recorded. The twenty participants included architects, HVAC engineers, conservators and conservation scientists, collection managers and museum administrators. Their discussions included topics such as classification of buildings based on their ability to maintain a more-or-less controlled climate, the vulnerability of various types of collection materials to values and fluctuations in environmental conditions, the spectrum of available engineering solutions, the financial implications in installing and operating climate control systems, and the actual process for arriving at optimal decisions regarding the environmental protection for a given collection or institution.