3rd IIC Roundtable - The plus/minus dilemma

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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.