Photo: Anna Flavin, GCI

In this world, nothing is set in stone. Change is a constant in every aspect of life, and the conservation field is, of course, subject to that unavoidable truth. This has been particularly evident in recent discussions and debates within the field regarding standards for collection environments. For the better part of the second half of the twentieth century, collecting institutions and conservation professionals considered the standards for the collection environment to be a somewhat settled matter. But, for a variety of reasons, that has not proven to be the case. Energy costs have risen, and with that rise has come a gnawing sense that certain specifications are no longer sustainable. Also being questioned is whether a single environmental standard for all collections and all places is appropriate and applicable. In addition, new pressures related to the loan of objects have led some to call for more flexible standards for environments in borrowing institutions. Finally, as many have pointed out, detailed and comprehensive scientific evidence about how a variety of objects actually respond to change or variation in their immediate environment has been lacking. All these issues have prompted many in the conservation field and collecting institutions to begin to question adherence to the environmental specifications they have relied on for so long.

In order to address some of the continuing questions and concerns regarding environmental strategies for collections, the Getty Conservation Institute began an initiative called Managing Collection Environments. This edition of Conservation Perspectives examines a number of issues related to the collection environment, beginning with our feature article, authored by GCI staff working on that initiative—Foekje Boersma, Kathleen Dardes, and James Druzik. Their article offers a succinct exploration of the evolving understanding of what composes an appropriate and safe environment for cultural heritage collections.

These changing perceptions have been prompted in part by recent scientific work. In his article, scientist Stefan Michalski of the Canadian Conservation Institute provides a crisp and concise review of research in conservation science that has established, in some areas, clearer parameters for collection environments; at the same time, he articulates a collaborative approach for future research. Paul van Duin, head of Furniture Conservation at the Rijksmuseum, emphasizes in his article the need for systematic study of large groups of real objects, and he describes how one such effort, the Climate4Wood research project, is bringing helpful insight into the museum environment issue.

The current striving for sustainability in the building or renovating of museums most definitely has implications for the museum environment. In their article, conservator Rachael Perkins Arenstein and architect Scott Raphael Schiamberg provide a primer for conservators on how they can make themselves part of the building process to ensure that preservation concerns are integrated into construction design. And in our roundtable discussion, conservators Anna Bülow, Martijn de Ruijter, and Merv Richard weigh risk against pragmatism as they grapple with questions about what constitutes appropriate environments for diverse collections in diverse places and how these questions might be resolved in the context of museum loans.

Without a doubt, our understanding of the environmental needs of collections is deepening and becoming more nuanced. With the GCI’s new initiative—and with the ideas presented here—we seek to advance conservation thought and practice in collection environments as part of the larger review and rethinking under way among our colleagues around the world.

Timothy P. Whalen