Museums are under increased pressure to find sustainable solutions to managing their collection environments. The one-size-fits-all approach traditionally applied to temperature and relative humidity levels for objects, regardless of what material they are made of, is expensive and can thwart an institution’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.
With the help of conservators, scientists and other specialists, museums are beginning to adopt less stringent parameters that consider the specific needs of individual objects, as well as the history of their collections, which in turn could pave the way for more loans. To aid this effort, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles is leading the Managing Collection Environments (MCE) initiative, which combines scientific research with much-needed education.
It has been more than a decade since the Bizot Group of international museum directors pushed to re-evaluate the original guidelines, which were developed in the 1970s. These narrow parameters set the optimum environment at 20°C ± 2°C (70°F ± 4°F) and 50% ± 3% relative humidity. In 2014 the International Institute for Conservation and the International Council of Museums’ Committee for Conservation adopted a more relaxed set of parameters, while a recent revision in a handbook published by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers addressed the issue of different climactic zones and the importance of using the historic average of an institution’s collection as a starting point. But the new approach has not come without challenges.
Joel Taylor, a project lead on the Getty’s MCE initiative, says the original guidelines are still so embedded in experts’ everyday thinking that people worry that “they are introducing risk that has not been there before” by not adhering to them. But as his project co-lead Kathleen Dardes, who is head of collections at the GCI, points out: “We fell into this trap because many determined their environments based on the capabilities of what their heating and air-conditioning systems were providing, as opposed to what the objects could actually tolerate, what type of environment the museum was located in or what type of building the collection was in.”
In recent years the conservation community has increasingly asked whether it is possible to apply a single solution for collections environments. “What if you have an object made in Argentina or the Philippines where it’s humid, or in California where it would form an equilibrium within a drier climate? Once you start to unpack it, there are a lot of complexities that cannot be represented by a single number,” Taylor says.