The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded funding to a GCI collaborative research project to develop and test an "optoelectronic nose" that monitors air pollutants in museum environments. The GCI team—which comprises senior scientists Michael Schilling (co-principal investigator of the NSF grant) and Jim Druzik—will focus on testing the new sensor. Kenneth S. Suslick, Marvin T. Schmidt Professor of Chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the principal investigator and developer of the sensor arrays. This project is being undertaken within the framework of GCI's Managing Collection Environments Initiative.

For many years, GCI scientists have studied gaseous pollutants, their effects on museum collections, and analytical techniques for measuring their concentrations (see Monitoring for Gaseous Pollutants in Museum Environments, available as a free download in the PDF Publications section of the GCI website). Many gaseous pollutants cause irreversible chemical damage, even when present at trace levels of concentration. While pollutant concentrations tend to remain low in museum galleries with their constant air circulation, they may reach harmful levels inside display and storage cases because the gases released by the materials used to construct the cases and the works of art are trapped. Tools to measure pollutant concentrations in museums range from inexpensive, direct readout devices for single pollutants to instruments that measure multiple pollutants and require expensive laboratory analysis.

In the NSF-funded project, the research group will develop small, unobtrusive, low-cost colorimetric sensor arrays capable of accurately measuring, at extremely low concentration levels, a wide range of gaseous pollutants that pose risks to works of art. GCI scientists will use the newly developed sensors to monitor air quality in galleries, display cases, and storage cases in cultural institutions throughout Southern California, including the Getty Museum and Getty Villa. This work will lead to improvements in storage conditions for museum collections. Conservation applications of the sensors also include testing the efficacy and useful lifetimes of pollution adsorbents for museum cases and evaluating the permeability of protective barrier film coatings on metal and plastic works of art.

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 fieldwork 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 with other international entities engaged in this area.