Museum exhibits house a collection of unique and priceless artifacts, whether it’s articles, artwork, tools, or other important pieces. Their goal is to preserve these artifacts indefinitely. Using a combination of humidity control, light control, and air filtration, museums help preserve these pieces for successive generations to enjoy.
Preserving Artwork and Artifacts in Museum Exhibits
Preserving these different media is a tricky job. You’re sort of learning as you go. The modern system of artwork conservation is rooted in World War II. Citizens and museum workers placed the artwork in makeshift underground mines and subway tunnels to protect them from bombings. They found out that the pieces were well maintained and concluded that cool, dry, and stable environments were the ideal environments for preservation.
In the decade following World War II, art museums used a combination of humidifiers, thermostats, and central air to balance human comfort with the best environment for the different artwork gallery museum exhibits. This was a temperature of around 70 degrees and relative humidity hovering between 45-55%. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers in their own studies has found this the ideal range to reduce dust, pests, and other corrosive materials that can damage artifacts such as mold and mildew.
Managing Corrosive Materials
Airborne pollutants react poorly with the different dyes, pigments, and other materials. A proper HVAC system is about the only line of defense these artifacts have.
Reactions are usually small and can be easily managed by conservationists. Any strong and quick reaction leaves the artwork permanently damaged or destroyed. Dust is one of the biggest irritants for conservationists. Proper humidification is integral to limiting dust. It’s a highly corrosive material that can wreak havoc on all mediums. Outside of dust, proper humidification keeps wood from rotting and splitting, and leather from stiffening.
Archivists placed more unstable materials such as minerals and metals in their own microclimates. Humidity, temperature, and air filtration are more closely monitored by conservationists in these separate areas.
Edvard Munch’s The Scream: A Case-Study
An Oslo, Norway art museum also quickly learned a lesson recently about proper humidification. They noticed deterioration on Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s The Scream. A team of scientists decided to figure out what was causing this issue. Thieves stole the painting in 2004. Police recovered the painting in 2006. The museum’s gallery has rarely displayed the painting in public since the recovery.
The scientists determined that the cadmium sulfide pigments when exposed to a relative humidity of 95% they turned to cadmium sulfate. Scientists were able to conclude that high levels of moisture, not light, was the biggest culprit. This knowledge will help preserve other pieces completed around the same timeframe. Since the study, The Scream has returned to the museum.
Constanza Miliani, the study’s author, said, “This kind of work shows that art and science are intrinsically linked and that science can help preserve pieces of art so that the world can continue admiring them for years to come.”
Helping Museums with Humidity Control
In Kansas City, MO sits the Piano Technicians Guild building. This 14,000 square foot building includes a museum. This exhibit includes a collection of historical pianos and early tuning instruments. An Aprilaire dehumidifier was installed in 2007 to help preserve the museum’s collection of important music artifacts, including the grand piano that was on stage the night President Lincoln was assassinated in Ford Theatre. Preserving this and other pianos in the area will help the museum.
“Keeping the humidity level around your piano as constant as possible will help it stay in tune longer as well as slow such damage as soundboard cracks, loose tuning pins, and glue joint failures.”
Aprilaire’s sister company, DriSteem, manufacturer of commercial dehumidifiers has used their humidification expertise to help two museums preserve historical pieces. The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, NY is an aviation museum that houses many early aviation artifacts. The building’s relative humidity fluctuated between 3-10 percent. A DriSteem Humidifier helped eliminate those concerns to preserve history for fans of early flight collections.
The company also did a case study for the National Museum of Music in Calgary, Canada. Due to the museum’s location, the area is fairly dry. These conditions could lead to major issues in preserving those artifacts. DriSteem’s recommendations will help Canada and the world enjoy important pieces of Canadian cultural history.
Housed in the Smithsonian’s National Archives is a book about humidity control. The author, Bernard Morton, worked for DriSteem and received a patent for his work on the steam humidification cabinet.
Conservationism and HVAC
As we push into the second decade of the 21st century, the scientific advancements in HVAC engineering have provided conservationists a better opportunity to provide the perfect micro-climate for each museum exhibit.
Although museum exhibits can appear stuffy due to the plethora of no touching signs and security guards monitoring you, that is not their intention. In fact, it’s for the sake of the different artifacts. Due to the volatility of pieces, conservationists are simply trying to help slow the rate of degradation.
Increasing scientific advancements will help museums better conserve important artifacts for successive generations. Healthy air will play an integral role in both the preservation of these collections and your family’s health.
Much of the information for this article was provided by Gregory Dale Smith, a Senior Conservation Scientist at Newfields. Smith helps preserve many of the Indianapolis Art Museum Exhibits. Newfields comprises the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Fairbanks Park, The Garden, Lilly House, and the Elder Greenhouse.