By Kathleen Dardes and James Druzik
Recognition of the importance of preventive conservation is growing in virtually every region of the globe. Defined as the management of the environmental conditions under which collections are housed and used, preventive conservation has advanced in both research and application. The last few years have been a period of progress.
Managing the environment now applies to all potential risks to collections, be they ubiquitous environmental parameters like relative humidity or temperature; phenomena that are periodic and rare (such as natural disasters); or simply access, handling, and use by collections staff. Environmental management encompasses both technical and organizational strategies—and ideally involves the entire institution. In her 1995 book Environmental Management, May Cassar of Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives, and Libraries (formerly the Museum & Galleries Commission) in the United Kingdom, placed the "environmental needs of museum collections at the forefront of the responsibilities of museum managers."
Cassar considered that the strategic management of the environment was vastly superior alternative to the piecemeal approach to environmental monitoring and control still practiced by far too many museums. Indeed, because the concept deals with such a wide range of interrelated issues and conditions, it doesn't fit the older model of conservation training and practice in which the conservator is perceived as the primary, if not the sole, guardian of the collection. Nowadays, effective long-term preventive conservation strategies are the result of collaborative will and effort, and caring for collections is regarded as a responsibility conservators share with others.
Signs of Progress
One area of change has been in the nature and extent of conservators' interactions with other professionals. The trend toward interdisciplinarity and collective action is likely to continue, with a wide range of allied professionals contributing to preventive conservation. Within the museum, the actions of facility managers, curators, exhibition designers and fabricators, and others affect the way collections are cared for and used. Preventive conservation also brings conservators into contact with outside specialists, such as architects, engineers, and building contractors. In the future, preventive conservation activities could expand even further into fund-raising and political advocacy.
There's been significant headway in raising the profile of preventive conservation among directors and other institutional decision makers. To be sure, a good deal more remains to be done to secure preventive conservation's place within institutions. Still, there are a number of interesting efforts that promote preventive conservation as a strategic approach.
ICCROM's Teamwork for Preventive Conservation—an initiative directed at European museums—worked to create links among the staff of the project's participating institutions. The objective was to establish an informal network that supports preventive conservation efforts throughout an institution. Starting with the director and senior staff, Teamwork for Preventive Conservation focused on increasing awareness of the responsibilities of different professionals within the museum for collections care and emphasized the importance of maintaining communication for effective cooperation. As the Musée National des Arts et Tradition Populaires—one institution participating in the initiative—reported:
At our museum we were always in crisis about conservation. At first we wanted a training course for our top staff, but then we realized we needed that and more. We needed a new tradition of talking to one another. There needed to be a change of habit and mentality.
ICCROM's recently launched project for a European Preventive Conservation Strategy moves beyond individual institutions to include ministries of culture and museums and conservation services in a pan-European planning and action initiative.
In North America, the efforts of allied professionals are increasingly valued. Over the past decade, work by architects and engineers—as well as by entomologists, biologists, and chemists—has resulted in significant developments in research and application. The leadership in preventive conservation research long exercised by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education (SCMRE), the Carnegie Mellon Institute, and the Image Permanence Institute of the Rochester Institute of Technology (IPI) continues and grows.
For example, the IPI has developed environmental hardware and software for collecting and interpreting data collections. Eighty different cultural institutions will collaborate with the IPI in field tests of this promising environmental management technology. The results of the field trials, which are expected to last up to two years, will be reflected in the final version of this environmental management hardware and software package.
Cooperation and Collaboration
An excellent example of interdisciplinary cooperation is the effort by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) to support the creation of a chapter in its handbook, ASHRAE Fundamentals, dedicated to museums, libraries, and archives. This handbook—a major resource for mechanical engineers, who are responsible for the design of heating, cooling, and ventilation systems—is published annually with individual chapter revisions undertaken when considered necessary. The committee responsible for current revisions to the chapter for collection-holding institutions is composed of mechanical engineers, research architects, conservation scientists (including two from the GCI), and conservators whose collective experience and international reputations in museum environmental design and collections requirements are well recognized. ASHRAE's influence and the use of its publications extend beyond North America, and the revised chapter for museums, libraries, and archives will likely have significant impact on building design worldwide.
In the Pacific Rim and Asia, important initiatives promoting preventive conservation have radiated from the Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Property and the Nara National Institute for Cultural Property in Japan, and from the National Centre for Cultural Preservation in Australia. In Latin America, research centers that are providing environmental leadership for the collections of the region include the Centro de Conservação e Restauração de Bens Culturais Móveis (CECOR) at the University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, and the Centro Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museología (CENCREM) in Cuba. Working with ICCROM as well as with national and regional institutions, CECOR and CENCREM have advanced the understanding of preventive conservation through an approach that is mindful of the variable conditions that affect collection-holding institutions in Latin America. Their research activities reflect the particular concerns of climate and typologies of buildings and collections, while incorporating relevant new thinking and research from beyond the region.
In Europe preventive conservation research continues either at or under the auspices of a number of major institutions, including the Centre de recherche sur la conservation des documents graphiques, the British Museum, and Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives, and Libraries—to name only a few. By providing advice, commissioning research, and publishing, the Council is an important catalyst for raising standards for the environmental management of collections. Its contribution to conservation is helping guide the development of the field well beyond the borders of Great Britain.
One noteworthy example of collaboration among a number of regional institutions can be found in Brazil in the project Preventive Conservation in Libraries and Archives (Conservação Preventiva em Bibliotecas e Arquivos). Among other things, the project, with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, arranged for the translation into Portuguese of a series of technical reports originally sponsored by the U.S. Commission on Preservation and Access. As a result, current cutting-edge insights in conservation research are available in their full, unedited versions, in Portuguese, to libraries and archives throughout Brazil.
At the GCI, several research and education projects presently under way reflect the increased emphasis on interdisciplinarity and cooperation. Specifically on the scientific front, environmental research is expected to yield important practical results for the field.
At two locations—the Historical Museum and Archives of the City of San Cristóbal de la Laguna on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and at Hollybourne Cottage, part of the Jekyll Island historic district in Georgia in the southeastern United States—GCI scientists Shin Maekawa and Franciza Toledo are conducting research on the efficacy of sustainable climate control strategies for improving collection environments in historic buildings in hot and humid regions of the world.
The research aims to eliminate intrusive modifications to the fabric of historic buildings which are typically needed for heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning installation. One of the largest benefits of the work is the development of methods that offer effective control of microbiological growth within these buildings. Design and investigation of these strategies employ the collaboration of microbiologists, engineers, and facilities managers.
Two other GCI scientists, Jim Druzik and Cecily Grzywacz, are developing a set of practical guidelines for controlling indoor-generated air pollution in display case and storage microenvironments. This work will focus on determining thecapacity and life span of a host of new adsorbent materials recently introduced into the conservation field, for which there is currently little or no reliable information.
"When gaseous pollutants are trapped inside cases, objects can be seriously damaged, so selecting the right sorbent is critical in minimizing risks," says Grzywacz. "Our planned systematic studies should provide comprehensive information to help museums choose appropriate—instead of untested—materials."
One outcome of the GCI's recent work in preventive conservation is the development of a methodology for a conservation assessment—a comprehensive examination and analysis of the environmental factors that can adversely affect collections. Recent research and experience in preventive conservation have underscored the symbiotic relationship between museum collections and the buildings that house them. It is clear that an assessment of environmental conditions must also reflect this relationship by promoting a vigorous collaboration between professionals concerned with architectural issues and those occupied with collection conservation and management. Such assessments should also include museum staff whose jobs directly involve care of the collection or of the building—conservation, curatorial, building maintenance—or staff whose work may affect these areas indirectly, such as security or housekeeping personnel.
The assessment methodology developed by the GCI had its genesis in a collaboration with the U.S. National Institute for Conservation (now Heritage Preservation) which resulted in a set of guidelines for conservation assessments. Seeking to develop an approach that would give greater emphasis to the architectural issues related to environmental management—and that could ultimately be used in its educational and field projects—the GCI formulated an expanded set of guidelines, The Conservation Assessment:A Proposed Model for Evaluating Museum Environmental Management Needs. These guidelines focus the expertise of architects, conservators, and museum staff on an interdisciplinary and collaborative examination of a building and its collection. This methodology, which reflects the important role of the building in providing an environment for a collection, has been field-tested at two museums—the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, and the Museum of Sacred Art in Bahia, Brazil—and it can be adapted for cultural institutions everywhere. (The guidelines, in English and Spanish, are available on the GCI Web site.
Dissemination through Education
One of the most effective ways to implement preventive conservation over the long term is through education and training. While research illuminates the effects of environmental conditions on collections—and shows how, through appropriate actions, deleterious effects can be mitigated or even eliminated—timely access to this information is critical. Unfortunately, institutions responsible for training in conservation often face the dual challenge of not only keeping current on advances but also of integrating them into curricula and training.
Through one of its projects—the Latin American Consortium for Training in Preventive Conservation—the GCI is working with conservation professionals and architects in the region to develop opportunities to incorporate environmental management into preventive conservation training. The Consortium is composed of teaching institutions that, along with the GCI, have come together to share information and resources in preventive conservation. It promotes access to information and teaching materials, greater interdisciplinarity within the field, and an efficient and reliable support system for educators. The Consortium has an interactive Web site to communicate, to store, and to share its didactic resources.
Over the next several years, Consortium members will offer a series of workshops focused on teaching preventive conservation. The first workshop—for preparing future instructors of emergency preparedness for museums—took place at the Universidad Pontificia Católica in Santiago, Chile, in late spring of this year (see GCI News: Workshop on Valuing Cultural Heritage). A workshop for conservators and architects dealing with the building-related aspects of preventive conservation for museum collections will be held during the first half of 2001 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Participants in Consortium workshops are expected to apply the experience gained from the workshops (and other collaborative activities of the Consortium) to preventive conservation training projects within their own institutions. In all of the activities associated with the Consortium, members will draw upon teaching resources both within and outside of Latin America, and links are being established with allied professionals in university departments of architecture, engineering, and education.
An Evolving Concept
The core philosophy of preventive conservation has been around for a long time, but this philosophy has evolved in several dimensions since its inception.
Preventive conservation as an approach has expanded to include decision makers, such as directors and other high-level staff, as well as curatorial, collections management, conservation, preparation, facilities management, and grounds-keeping personnel. In some instances, it even impacts laws, public policy, and the museum visitor.
Where once the conservator was a self-contained generalist, he or she is now more likely to be a member of a highly differentiated team of specialists meeting the needs of very complex museum "ecosystems." To be sure, the conservator still treats objects much of the time and may be the sole voice for conservation in the majority of cultural institutions. Nevertheless, the trend has been set. Preventive conservation is becoming everyone's business.
Kathleen Dardes is a GCI project specialist, and James Druzik is a GCI senior scientist.