Research Philosophy

The Managing Collection Environments (MCE) initiative seeks to define sustainable control and management of collection environments in museums. The research program developed within MCE focuses on achieving a better understanding of the response of hygroscopic materials to climatic fluctuations at both the micro and macro scale.

Mechanical Characterization of Materials is providing scientific data that identify more precisely under which conditions irreversible damage occurs as a result of climatic agents of deterioration. Combining this laboratory based research with field studies provides an opportunity for testing the applicability of existing technologies from a lab environment to real-life situations. By gathering valuable data on how objects behave under different environmental conditions through deployment of in-situ monitoring techniques in concrete settings, the initiative will contribute to a better understanding of how actual objects behave in real conditions. Examples of this transfer of technology are the assessment of the environmental conditions during the transportation of objects and the deployment of acoustic emission to monitor the structural change in wooden objects exposed to climatic fluctuations. Data gathered in these field activities in turn will inform and validate the research undertaken in Materials Characterization Research.

This interconnectivity between lab research and field studies is guided by concepts developed in epidemiology.


Epidemiology is a branch of medical science that deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of disease in a population. Applied to cultural heritage, it can identify how a physical condition or environmentally derived adverse effect is distributed in museum collections. Thus it may be used to develop rational guidelines for collection environments, with the idea of identifying safe indoor recommendations with respect to temperature and reality humidity fluctuations.

Epidemiology needs true representativeness in study groups and reduces the causal uncertainty for the distribution of damage in collections. It may be designed to compare different collections of objects, objects in differing collections, or affected and unaffected objects within a single collection—environment (understood in the narrower sense of climate) is the independent variable.

In epidemiology, quality of evidence is very important: how strong is an association and does it rise to the level of convincing causation. The standard model for ranking the quality of evidence within epidemiology has favored some version of the pyramidal structure. It builds from general background information up through basic study designs into critically-appraised articles, validated predictive models including web-based tools, and finally, systematic reviews including meta-studies. These all build upon the evidence to demonstrate, and often prove causality. The conservation field may apply this same quality-of-evidence approach to projects. Assuming a more rational set of best practices for sustainable museum environmental conditions rests upon the strongest evidentiary foundation we can provide, this shows how a network of research builds to that objective and, more specifically, where lacunae in the structure may be found and filled.

Experts' Meeting

Read meeting report.

In June 2015, the GCI convened a meeting at Windmill Hill Archive, to explore the possibilities of adapting an epidemiological approach to cultural heritage. Leading researchers active in the study of materials' behavior in fluctuating climatic conditions, as well as those working with collections, were brought together to explore ways in which this approach can help in the investigation of the causal relationships between objects' mechanical damage and their environment. The idea of adapting epidemiology to collections was discussed with colleagues from the National Trust (UK), English Heritage, Victoria & Albert Museum, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Technical University Eindhoven, Doerner Institut, Fraunhofer Institut, Jerzy Haber Institute, Canadian Conservation Institute, Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University and the Image Permanence Institute. This meeting set the stage for sharing experiences and for exploring potential ways to collaborate in this research. The meeting was moderated by Sarah Staniforth, president, International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC).

The meeting worked toward an outline of a research methodology. It was collectively felt that prospective study designs, (i.e., those studies in which material response to fluctuating climatic conditions is monitored in real time) would provide the most reliable data. Whereas retrospective studies, in which objects' conditions are interpreted by examining a variety of historic and current data ranging from images, reports, climate data, etc., could be useful for vetting hypotheses. Heuristics, uncertainty, and biases are challenges that have to be taken into consideration in any project design. Sample size (the number of objects to be examined for any study to generate representative data) was also discussed. By choosing more specific and more sensitive monitoring techniques, sample size can be significantly reduce to manageable proportions. To illustrate: when using just ordinary observation alone or simple measurements compared to using acoustic emission or thermography, the sample size can be reduced by a factor 100. This strengthens the need to continue the adaptation and deployment of mechanical testing techniques from the laboratory into the field.

At the end of the meeting, participants organized themselves into several smaller working groups of those interested in exploring specific topics in more detail. The participants also expressed a wish to collaborate by sharing project data where possible and to potentially work together in new studies.

Page updated: October 2015