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3rd IIC Roundtable – The plus/minus dilemma

I hope this post can be a place for more discussion about the 3rd IIC Roundtable ‘The plus/minus dilemma, the way forward in environmental guidelines’ part of the dialogues for the new century series.

The Roundtable will be available for your viewing on the ArtBabble webpage of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). Referenced throughout the roundtable was a recent meeting in Boston titled, “Rethinking the Museum Climate” that covered similar topics.

Maxwell L. Anderson, the Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO, of Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana moderated the session and he began with comments about how as the director of a museum he stood for administration, but to really move forward in this discussion we need to move past stereotypes and work collaboratively with administrators, scientists, conservators, and building engineers to discuss the longevity of cultural heritage, currency, and energy.  Throughout the discussion it was emphasized that the best collective advice should be presented to museum directors so they can make informed decisions about the best practices.

Nancy Bell, Head of Conservation Services, National Archives, London, and Principle Investigator of the Environments, Guidelines, Opportunities and Risks (EGOR) initiative,  was the first speaker.  She introduced recent research in the United Kingdom.  The research began after a 2008 meeting of the Bizot group of museums.  She discussed research that is being done and emphasized that conservators should make their argument clearly to museum directors to better begin a dialogue.

Karen Colby Stothart, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Installations, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa followed Nancy.  Karen noted that she is an administrator of a museum and she would be speaking with an operational perspective, although she did train and practice as a conservator.  She spoke about the importance of exhibitions and how they drive how a museum defines itself and the +/- dilemma.   The National Gallery of Canada has a more flexible approach to environmental guidelines, incorporating seasonal changes into the temperature and RH ranges. To have this flexibility requires a high level of technical understanding of the conservation team, and understanding of the collections. This is labor and knowledge intensive but allows for the required flexibility in the National Gallery of Canada.

Cecily M. Grzywacz, Conservation scientist specializing in preservation environments and collaborator in the ASHRAE guidelines for museum environments, was the next speaker.  Cecily was quick to point out that she was between positions so she could say what she really thought on the +/- dilemma.  She began by saying that there is no internationally agreed standard for temperature and humidity parameters and we are currently dealing with the lack of  a standard. This is an interdisciplinary communication process that need to inform and educate each other. She forgave conservators because she pointed out that registrars and loan agreements are where there are requirements for strict standards, and not usually conservators.  She rightly pointed out that a loan to a museum should not be a ‘spa vacation’ for an object, and by requiring more strict parameters for a loaned object could actually be damaging. This reminds me of an article I read earlier by Jonathan Ashley-Smith.

Stefan Michalski, Senior Conservation Scientist, Conservation Research, the Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa.  Stefan is a giant in the field of conservation science, one of those names you study at school and are then amazed that he walks the Earth and looks generally like other human beings.  He is also a parent and he spoke about his interest in sustainability from the viewpoint of a parent which is something I have heard from other conservators, “If we are saving collections for our children, then we should also save the world our children will be living in.”  Stefan went for the facts by stating that the collection environment can destroy materials like plastics and some inorganics but the correct levels, especially for RH have not yet been defined.  He pointed to the National Trust and the British Museum as institutions using the RH guidelines of 40-60% and this is probably because these collections have been held at these parameters already. He noted that real savings are from adjusting temperature ranges, and changes in temperature are less damaging to collections than changes in humidity.

Terry Drayman Weisser, Director of Conservation and Technical Research, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland closed the roundtable discussion, with a conservator’s perspective about environmental guidelines.  She is interested in  re-evaluating environmental standards, and embrace green technology and sustainability. She believes that conservators need a way to make informed decisions, using research and realizing that every object may react differently to fluctuations depending on their treatment history.  She believes the use of micro-climates and the creative use of exhibition spaces can help keep particularly susceptible collection pieces protected in storage and exhibit spaces.

I left the roundtable thinking that there is a great potential here for interdisciplinary study of the museum environment and how it affects collections, this could be done for individual collections or as research into materials science.  Walking out of the ballroom to a song by Journey ‘Don’t stop believing’ I told myself I shouldn’t.

4 Responses to “3rd IIC Roundtable – The plus/minus dilemma”

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4 Responses to “3rd IIC Roundtable – The plus/minus dilemma”

  1. Amber says:

    Excellent recap Rose!

    The room was nearly filled to capacity with over two hundred attendees. One could sense the significance of this event in the interest and participation levels of the attendees.

    Here are few reflection points and questions that I took away from the discussion:

    • Transparency and candor in reporting the actual ranges institutions maintain. Max Anderson asked that we be forthright in reporting actual fluctuations in environmental conditions and that we remain flexible when resolving the challenges we face. There are few museums that walk the walk, and talk the talk in this regard, but the IMA’s dashboard is setting an example as it displays the museum’s daily environmental conditions and energy consumption in real time – visible to all – including those institutions with which they are negotiating exhibitions! (Perhaps transparency will let us all look at the real numbers in order to see what we are truly managing or ‘controlling’ when it comes to our environments? Perhaps providing this true date will enable us to draw conclusions based on actual conditions and realistic expectations; revealing how much we truly abide to the ‘golden standards’ we strive for? Have a look at the IMA’s dashboard here:

    • Need for more research and understanding of how changes in environmental conditions will ultimately affect real artifacts – identifying the research gaps needed to develop research projects will be vital. I was encouraged to hear of efforts in UK and EU to address this need for research and will look forward to the learning more about it. Nancy Bell stressed the need to set priorities in material science research and understand the relationship between cultural heritage items and environment damage. This includes understanding who values the cultural heritage items and why they value them, along with determining what the acceptable levels of change are for these items if the proposed parameters are implemented.

    • Understanding the canaries in our collections. This was a point brought up by Stefan Mcihalski who summed it up when he said that the parameters we operate under should reflect the majority of the materials in our collections. Do we interpret this as providing exception for the canaries; relegating them to specially controlled areas or climate controlled displays, but not basing the entire collections parameters on the canaries? There are many innovative ways we can display, categorize, and care for these items. Reorganizing and managing our collections appropriately can help to preserve artifacts, as well as conserve energy and reduce overhead costs.

    • Are ‘creature comforts’ dictating our environment parameters? If we communicate the importance of these changes to our visitors so they understand the goals for seasonal adjustments in our collection environments, along with the ‘greener’ benefits of these changes as part of our global responsibility, then perhaps they can ‘adjust’ to the warmer summer conditions and colder winter conditions. A sacrifice of comfort for sustaining collections and conserving energy.

    These are but a few of the points I’m reflecting on since the event. I look forward to the transcripts generated from this and to the summary of Boston event ‘Rethinking the Museum Environment’ – which I’ve been told will be released in the coming week and posted (look for it on IIC’s Facebook and News blog pages).

    Placing these issues on the table opens up the dialogue we need to engage in as a profession, and with other professionals and stakeholders involved in this decision making process. It was clear that the imperative is on participation and collaboration; and although this issue is not new to those who have been in the field for some time (déjà-vu for many), looking at something from a different perspective gives greater insight and sometimes a renewed approach. I appreciated the varied perspectives given and remain open to the dialogues and research yet to come.

    • Rose Daly says:

      Thanks for your comment Amber, and a great summary of the key points from the roundtable.

      I have been reflecting about environmental conditions over the past few days, especially about the perfect environmental conditions for a collection. These conditions would include: no fluctuation of humidity, low temperatures, total darkness, no pollution, and no oxygen. For a collection housed in any museum or historical structure that has access in their mission, this is not possible. So we must compromise, and how we choose to compromise, or the areas we choose in which to compromise, will determine the standard that can be given.

      It is a lot to think about, I would be interested to hear more from others about their thoughts about the roundtable and see this discussion continue.


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