Overview

Managing Collection Environments is a multiyear initiative that addresses a number of compelling research questions and practical issues pertaining to the control and management of collection environments in museums, libraries, archives, and other repositories. The initiative will combine scientific investigation with field work that tests and refines practical solutions. Educational activities ranging from short courses to expert meetings, and information dissemination through print and electronic publications, support and extend the research activities. Throughout all phases of the project, the GCI will work in coordination and cooperation with other international entities actively engaged in this area.

Background

The launch of Managing Collection Environments comes at a time when professionals in museums, libraries, and archives are debating long-standing ideas and practices relating to the environmental conditions in which their collections are stored and exhibited. At least since the mid-seventies, many museums have regarded a relatively narrow set of environmental parameters, 70° ± 4° F (20° ± 2° C) and 50 ± 3% RH, as providing the optimum conditions for the preservation of their collections. Although never actually prescribed as a standard by a professional body, this range nonetheless has served as a de facto standard and has become a frequent and—until fairly recently—generally unquestioned specification for loan agreements between institutions. However, this somewhat narrow target range has proven difficult and expensive for collecting institutions to meet consistently for a number of reasons, including those relating to the vagaries of climate, the capabilities of climate control systems, and the availability of the human and financial resources necessary for maintaining tight controls. Managing climatic conditions within this narrowly-defined range is also highly dependent on continued access to reliable and relatively low-cost energy sources, a situation that can no longer be taken for granted. As a result, museums, libraries, and archives are now engaged in a reconsideration of their specifications for collection environments, taking into account the growing imperative of both environmental and economic sustainability.
While some members of the conservation field have already agreed to new specifications that allow a broader climatic range, there is nonetheless lingering uncertainty within the profession about the eventual consequences to collections of a more liberal approach to exhibition and storage environments. A major impediment to a wider acceptance of broader environmental parameters is the recognition that the field currently has an incomplete understanding of the chemical and mechanical reactions of some hygroscopic materials to relative humidity and temperature levels outside a narrow range. More research is needed to determine whether permanent damage occurs in these materials, or more brittle ones associated with them, in the broader climatic ranges under consideration, and to understand the rate and degree of fluctuation they can withstand.
The GCI has launched the Managing Collection Environments initiative to focus on the outstanding issues and questions relating to sustainable collection environments. Its specific objectives are to:

  • carry out research that will address critical questions pertaining to the behavior of materials under a range of environmental conditions
  • propose viable decision-making and practical strategies for collection environments, based on an understanding of risk and incorporating recent advances in active and passive environmental control
  • encourage critical dialogue amongst other colleagues working in this area through collaboration, workshops, and expert meetings
  • disseminate the results of the research and field activities through educational activities, publications, and professional meetings
The initial year of the initiative (from 2012 to mid-2013) is devoted to planning and to consultation with other individuals and institutions engaged in related research and education. During this process, the project team will further identify the needs in the field and develop a refined work strategy that will elaborate specific research, education, and field-testing opportunities to be undertaken by the GCI. The initiative will draw upon expertise within the GCI's Education and Science departments as well as that available through its network of partners.
Banner image: Installation view of the exhibition Paris: Life & Luxury at the Getty Center.