Cooling down hot issues: the MIA Conservation Freezer by Aristoteles Georgios Sakellariou

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The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha opened its gates to the public in 2008 under Qatar Museums Authority (today’s QM) and H.E. Shaikha al Mayasa bint Hamad al Thani. In late 2011 the MIA conservators identified the need for the museum to have its own freezer, primarily to treat large objects, such as carpets, for insect infestation. In December 2013, with the Director’s support a new conservation freezer became a reality. It is custom-made, the design tailored to MIA’s requirements and space available. Component parts were shipped to Qatar and assembled on site. It consists of a 13 m2 chamber, an external refrigerating unit, a robust metal ramp and nine mobile shelving units in different sizes (0.9-1.5 x 0.6 m) with wheels which can be moved easily around the collections areas and fit perfectly into the interior of the freezer.
Once the Freezer was installed and ready to receive objects, the conservation team faced a number of procedural challenges which needed to be solved, some of which are presented below.
Although a number of documents on procedures for museum freezers are published and available, it seems that the details of a freezer’s operations depend really on the individual requirements of a single institution, rather than on common guidelines.
We are aware that a number of museums around the world, mostly in tropical regions, use their freezers for preventive purposes and in some cases every object is subject to freezing before it enters storage. Pest activity at MIA has been successfully kept to a minimum, with no occurrences of damage to objects caused by pests since MIA opened.
Therefore, we weighed the risk of pest damage against the risk of exposing objects to sudden low temperatures. Objects and their physical surroundings at MIA go through a thorough condition check before the first are taken to storage areas and also during their stay there. The same procedure is followed for movement into the museum’s galleries. If an object is identified or suspected of being a pest carrier, it is put into quarantine.
With these precautions in place, the occurrence of unnoticed pest activity was judged to be very unlikely. On the other hand, subjecting an object to sudden low temperatures with the potential hazard of physical impact during de-frosting seemed to be a rather larger risk. Therefore in MIA’s case, the decision was to use the freezer for occasional preventive or active treatment rather than systematic preventive treatment.
Estimating the frequency of potential use of the freezer created another dilemma: whether to keep it constantly on, or turn it off once a treatment is complete. The estimated frequency of operating the freezer and the amount of energy that would be consumed by constant use (8.86 KW/hr), led us to choose the second option.
The next challenge occurred while writing the MIA Freezer Usage Policy. Who can be a user and who is responsible for the overall operation of the freezer? The design and construction of the freezer was clearly an initiative of the Conservation Department. However the freezer is not only located outside the Conservation Laboratory, but outside the so called ‘red zone’, an area restricted to very few staff members. Using the freezer requires the movement of objects in and out of the ‘red zone’.
This requires the filing of records by the Collections Management team to inform senior management and the security department of the proposed movement. Objects in the freezer spend a number of days under heavy security in that location, raising the question of whether the freezer is a piece of conservation equipment or a secure storage area. The answer is: both. The freezer is a piece of conservation equipment, but it becomes a secure storage area the moment collection items are in it.
Therefore, the compromise is for conservators to remain responsible for the use and operation of the freezer under the co-ordination of the Head of Conservation, whilst collection management team is responsible for the access and movement of the objects (security permissions, updating movement records etc.). Additionally, the keys of the freezer remain with collections management staff as long as the freezer contains collection objects. Conservators are free to access and use the freezer for research projects or when there is no movement of objects.
The Freezer Usage policy and procedure was further challenged when the Museum of Modern Arab Art in Doha (Mathaf) requested use of the freezer. Although there was no question as to whether we would assist our colleagues, we realised that our procedures covered only internal use and was impractical for application to an external institution. Through trial and error we had to simplify our procedure by adding an additional paragraph dedicated to non-MIA requests. Objects have to be prepared under the requester’s responsibility in that organisation’s premises. A MIA conservator is attached to each external request to advise and guide the process. Non-MIA objects are taken from the loading bay to the freezer directly, without entering the secure ‘red zone’. This significantly simplifies the administrative process. Similarly, the de-frosting phase takes place within the freezer. Once defrosted, the object is transported to the requester’s premises for unwrapping.
A training session to raise awareness of the procedure and a second on freezer safety are compulsory for all staff members with access to the freezer. These staff members are: conservators, art handlers, and registrars, but curators and security staff are welcome to attend as well. Safety training (theoretical and practical) addresses correct clothing for entering the freezer, opening and closing the freezer door, the arrangement of the freezer’s internal space and, last but not least, escaping the freezer once locked, a thrilling topic and popular with all participants!
Acquiring a freezing unit in a cultural organisation can be a difficult task, particularly in terms of cost and design. With this article we hope to communicate that the challenge does not end the moment the freezer is installed. On the contrary, here in MIA, we discovered that the real challenge started once the freezer was ready for use. The current MIA Freezer Policy and Usage Procedure is available upon request.

Acknowledgements: the author wishes to thank Paul Handley and the conservation team for their comments, Marc Peletreau (Head of Media) for his excellent photographs, Ilka Schact (MIA Director) for her excellent editing and last but not least Daniel Brown (MIA Director) and Aisha al Khater (MIA Director) for their support.

Aristotelis Georgios Sakellariou has worked for Qatar museums since 2012 and is currently the Head of Conservation at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. Previously he was the Head of Conservation at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. He graduated from Northumbria University, UK, MA Museum Management (2012) and MA Preventive Conservation (2007) programmse both with Distinction. He has also been a consultant for the University of Athens, the Hellenic Museum of Folklore Art and has undertaken a series of projects in the Eastern Mediterranean and the UK.