ANNA BÜLOW is deputy head of the Conservation and Scientific Research department at the British Museum in London. She previously served as the head of preservation at the National Archives, UK.
MARTJIN DE RUIJTER is a conservator at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam (part of the National Museum of World Culture). He is also a lecturer in collection management at the Reinwardt Academy in Amsterdam.
MERV RICHARD has worked in conservation at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, for three decades. In 2009, he was appointed chief of conservation, having previously served as deputy chief.
They spoke with FOEKJE BOERSMA, a senior project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute, and JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.
FOEKJE BOERSMA One of the reasons for inviting you all to this discussion is the fact that you are all working at different kinds of museums with different types of collections in different parts of the world. When it comes to environmental requirements, should art museums set different standards than archaeological or ethnographic collections? Or should the museum world work with one set of parameters for all kinds of collections?
MERV RICHARD I don't think that anyone would agree that one size fits all. An institution located in Phoenix, Arizona, is in a very different situation than a country house in Great Britain. The environment and the building structure that you are working with are dramatically different. This alters the decision-making process. A collection of works on parchment is unlike a collection of outdoor sculpture. The key point is that this is complicated, and we cannot make assumptions about what is appropriate for diverse institutions and locations.
MARTJIN DE RUIJTER I agree. It's very important to take into account the local climate and the country you are in. If you are in Tunisia, your objectives must be different from a country like Holland. In addition, the kind of building you are in—and a place like Holland has many old buildings where collections are kept—is also an important factor in considering the general environment for your collection and level of collection management. This means your approach and solutions must be adapted to achievable standards for that country.
ANNA BÜLOW I agree that it depends on the collection and the location. If you loan things to other places, then of course, you have to take that into account. I also think it is a matter of scale. Some collections are relatively small, so they're dealing with thousands of objects, while others, such as the British Museum, are dealing with millions of objects. We simply can't afford to be as precious as those institutions that have only a couple thousand objects. We need to be pragmatic in order to achieve the best for the collection as a whole.
RICHARD The only caveat I would add is the environment in storage areas would be important for preservation, regardless of the number of objects inside. High humidity that leads to biological activity or corrosion is always a concern, whether a room holds ten objects or a million objects.
BOERSMA The international discussion about environment requirements has been driven in part by the issue of loans. Merv, how does this discussion affect your current loan policy and how you deal with it?
RICHARD Well, firstly, we face the question of what has been our actual practice—which is not necessarily reflected in paperwork—and, secondly, what are the specific concerns of conservators about lending to institutions with different environments. At the National Gallery, our loan agreements specify 50% +/- 5%, but historically, in a large percentage of cases, we have freely lent to institutions with relative humidity specifications of 55% +/- 5% or 45% +/- 5%. A 40%–60% range has been acceptable for many of our loaned objects. However, our decisions are based on reviewing the object and the environment together. If we have concerns, we make special requests, such as adding silica gel to display cases. I think an issue that raises a red flag for many conservators is not whether you maintain 45% +/- 5% or 55% +/- 5% but whether the environment is reasonably stable during a twenty-four-hour period. Many conservators are concerned about frequent, large fluctuations during the day. Additionally, if buildings are designed for a specification on the order of +/- 5%, regardless of the set point, how often would the environment fall outside that specification? Systems fail, they need maintenance, or we occasionally face weather extremes. If we design for +/- 10%, can we accept occasional RH fluctuations of +/- 15% or +/- 20%?
BÜLOW The British Museum uses a very pragmatic approach. We ask for the relative humidity to stay below 65% and the temperature between 16°C and 25°C. The museum is one of the biggest lenders worldwide and has a lot of experience with other venues. In most cases we know the colleagues and venues where the objects are going, and if we don't, we will negotiate and come to an agreement on how to mitigate the risks. Although we have criteria and we use them as guidelines, the bottom line for us is never to ask anything of our borrowers that we don't do ourselves. Basically, if we can do it, we expect others to do it. If they can't and it's really a significant object, then we consider other options.
RICHARD For twenty-five years at the National Gallery, I have been the person in conservation reviewing facility reports and discussing loan issues that arise with conservators and registrars. We have acquired knowledge and experience with many institutions over the years. If we have concerns, we contact our colleagues and discuss the issues. This approach has served us well. Some professionals are concerned that a broader, internationally accepted standard would lessen the ability to make decisions based on caseby- case evaluations of situations.
JEFFREY LEVIN Each of you seems to be saying that a pragmatic approach has been in place at your institution for quite some time. Is that a fair characterization?
BÜLOW Yes, I think that is true.
RICHARD Same here.
LEVIN Is it your sense that among your colleagues at other institutions this approach is fairly well embraced?
DE RUIJTER I think it is, at most larger museums in the Western world. If you have a problem with museums that are a little stricter, and you send them information about your approach, they are usually flexible in the end.
BÜLOW It's my feeling that among the lenders—certainly those in the Western world, or even amongst the large lenders worldwide—this has been the practice for some time.
BOERSMA The International Group of Organizers of Largescale Exhibitions—known as the Bizot group—has, among other things, called for a review of the conservator's role as a courier in loans because it's a carbon footprint issue. So there might be pressure to reduce the courier trips that conservators take to accompany objects.
RICHARD My career at the National Gallery was initially dedicated to working with special exhibitions. I have often been a courier and was involved in the Art in Transit research project. In my opinion, there is no question that the presence of a courier for moving and installing artworks increases safety. It is important for someone to monitor activities at airports and truck transfers, and there are situations where, as a courier, one alters planned handling or installation procedures. However, I think we probably could do a better job of consolidating shipments to reduce the number of couriers.
MARTJIN DE RUIJTER
DE RUIJTER That's common practice here. Sometimes I go, and sometimes a conservator from another museum goes. If we think it is not necessary— or if we can ask other professionals to do it—we are happy to do that.
BÜLOW At the British Museum, it's often museum assistants who do basic care work and the bulk of the couriering. But while that means fewer conservators are going, the carbon footprint remains the same because it's still a person on the plane. One thing the museum is considering is to try and find a trusted venue locally to store objects for a short period of time when it has a group of objects on a touring exhibition and there is a gap in the exhibition schedule. If we feel we need to inspect objects, it is still more efficient to send a conservator to the objects rather than the other way round, especially where several shipments are concerned.
RICHARD These issues are complicated and not easily generalized. The National Gallery has arranged for items to be stored when there were gaps between venues and we did not want to subject the objects to unnecessary travel. The driving motivation was object safety, not the carbon footprint. With regard to the courier question, we have a large pool of couriers who are not conservators. Everyone goes through courier training and must make domestic courier trips before international ones. However, we insist that conservators accompany some objects.
DE RUIJTER We also make a distinction between sending a conservator or someone from collection management. We have the conservator, registrar, museum technician, or the head of the department. If it's going to a museum in Holland and we know the people, we let them install it. It all depends on the fragility of the object and the way the object will be mounted.
LEVIN In considering altering environmental specifications, colleagues at the Doerner Institute in Germany and others take the position that we should separate specifications from energy conservation. They say we should conserve energy, but that doesn't mean that we should alter the specs.
DE RUIJTER I think that's a bit defensive. As a conservator, I believe I can judge the risk. They have a right to this opinion, but you really need the research to defend it. You have to make a better effort to convince people of the real need of what you are asking for.
RICHARD Some of the issues raised by the Doerner Institute are, in fact, primary concerns in the conservation field. The question being asked is, “What is the motivation behind trying to adopt changes?” To reduce energy use for sustainability reasons? To reduce budgets? Or is it an effort to facilitate the loan process? Many conservators recognize that these different motivations are in play. The Doerner Institute is stating, “Until there's better research, we should be slower in adopting changes in our specifications—but that said, there are many other ways we can make some museums and historic houses more sustainable.” This is an important question. Are there better alternatives than changing our environmental specifications? I am sure there are, but I also believe we can accept, in some situations, greater flexibility in our RH specifications.
LEVIN Do you have other colleagues who feel as you do that a wider range is possible?
RICHARD Absolutely. Some colleagues are comfortable with +/- 10% RH. However, I believe many conservators in America feel more comfortable with the AIC guidelines that identify +/- 5% as the acceptable range within a twenty-four-hour period, while accepting seasonal changes within a 40%–60% range. For many conservators, it is the possibility of fluctuating from 40% to 60% in a single day that sends up a red flag. Colleagues feel that we need more research to determine which objects are most vulnerable.
BÜLOW The question of what motivates us to do this is an interesting one. I think that the environmental guidelines and the tight restrictions we had in the 1970s, '80s, and early '90s were possible because the technology was there to do it, so we did it because we could. We still have the technology, but something else is missing—and that's money. As a conservator, of course I'm concerned about the objects, but within the conservation community we sometimes miss the bigger picture. If we're too fussy about single items, we might forget that by spending a lot of resources on one thing, those resources aren't available for the rest of our collection. Money is an absolutely valid reason to reconsider what you're doing.
DE RUIJTER You have to take into account risk. As we do with students—and as I do together with a friend and colleague, Bart Ankersmit—we look at risks in museums. You have to think about that kind of thing as a conservator.
BOERSMA Using the risk management approach, you try to spend the money you have on reducing the bigger risks in order to get the greatest benefit. Is the collections environment the biggest risk we face in preserving collections?
BÜLOW I don't think it is, but I'm a convert to risk management, which is like a religion—either you believe or you don't. Institutions will differ. For us, I don't think environment is the greatest risk. There are other things that come under the category of physical forces that I believe are a more substantial risk.
DE RUIJTER I fully agree. Handling and lighting are larger risks.
RICHARD I agree.
BOERSMA What is each of your institutions doing to cut its carbon footprint and to become more sustainable?
BÜLOW The British Museum does have targets, but they haven't featured high on our agenda because our financial issues are bigger than our carbon footprint issues. In fairness, the museum has a complex collection in an old building—founded in 1753. I think my colleagues would agree that there has been underspending on building maintenance for some time, and now, of course, we sit there not only without money following the financial crisis but also with a building that requires significant investment in basic maintenance. Closing the funding gap through touring exhibitions is higher on the agenda than reducing carbon footprint. When I talk about reducing our carbon footprint, my colleagues in facilities are very interested; they're good allies to have because facilities pay the energy bill and know how the systems work. I am sure more will be done in the future.
BOERSMA Will the new collection center being opened at the museum change things?
BÜLOW Yes. Obviously, the new building was planned seven or eight years ago, so it is not necessarily what one would technologically design now. But the building has the carbon footprint in mind. That said, it is fully air-conditioned, and I am curious to see whether we actually need full air-conditioning throughout the storage areas. Storage goes three stories underground, and my guess is that once the concrete has dried out it might actually be quite stable in there.
BOERSMA Martijn, you told me that the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam has experimented with turning off the air-conditioning at night.
DE RUIJTER We turn it off in our storage for ten hours at night, and it's more stable, to be honest. In the museum itself we also run it on low speed so the exchange rate is decreased. We work together on this with our facility department, and one issue we've noticed is that the machinery is temperature driven. We would like it to be RH driven. We've asked the facility manager if we can adapt the machinery to our wishes, and if that's possible, we'd consider that a step forward.
RICHARD At the National Gallery, we are in the midst of a multiyear renovation project that focuses on the infrastructure. We brought in an engineering group specializing in sustainability issues to provide recommendations. We have installed variablespeed fan motors, adjusted air circulation rates, and reduced the quantity of outside air introduced at night when the building has few people inside. We are also using LED lighting in many areas. Some recommendations were acceptable while others would be too disruptive. But the effort is being made.
BÜLOW When I was at the National Archives, we found that the way we talked about the environment was not how engineers talked about it, so one of us made an effort to learn to speak in their terms. We also undertook a big collaborative project with University College London to model the environment in the Archives, and once we had that, we looked at options for energy savings and for stabilizing the relative humidity. As a result, airconditioning at the Archives is now switched off on weekends, providing huge savings and reducing the energy bills and the carbon footprint without impairing the environmental conditions within the repositories.
RICHARD One important aspect of discussing sustainability is it encourages people in different disciplines to ask questions, not just about our environmental specs but also about other ways to reduce our carbon footprint. It is important for professionals to evaluate where we are spending money and using energy. Many assumptions about energy usage prove to be inaccurate. One might assume that if you do X, it will have little impact, when in fact the opposite is true. This discussion is encouraging colleagues to look carefully at their energy usage and the associated costs.
BÜLOW At the National Archives, there was nothing too small to be considered. We were urged to switch off the lights when we went to a meeting and to switch off our monitors when we went home or when we were spending half a day at a meeting. There were many things that were done to reduce the carbon footprint. We even calculated whether electricity-driven hand dryers were more environmentally friendly than paper towels or linen, which needs washing. It was very systematic.
BOERSMA Martijn, you undertake exhibitions in tropical countries. In your experience, how do countries like Indonesia look at this debate regarding sustainability?
DE RUIJTER It's not yet on their radar. Last year with the RCE, the Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency, we did a project and a workshop with fifteen museums in Indonesia and a university in Yogyakarta to explain the risk management approach. And it was difficult for them, to be honest—and by difficult I mean that it was difficult for them to forget conventional Western standards and to incorporate into their thinking the value and significance of certain objects in their collections. I feel very positive about how all the participants reacted to what we proposed, but we should do a follow-up. We should do this more often.
BOERSMA We did a good job in informing the general public that we needed strict climate controls. Do we now have a responsibility to introduce them to a broader perspective?
RICHARD We have always recognized an obligation to inform the public about agents of deterioration for works of art, whether it is relative humidity or temperature or light or water damage. And I think the topic of sustainability should be included, but it is a secondary component of our message, not our primary one.
BÜLOW I agree. People are quite fascinated if you do inform them of what you do and why you do it, in terms of sustainability. But I think that must be a secondary goal. It's also true that for the last twenty years we have tried to educate our colleagues about environmental guidelines, and now that they've understood, we've moved on. I often struggle to convince our curators that it is possible to do things differently and still not put the object at risk. Other conservators I know have had that experience.
RICHARD This is one of the issues leading to so much controversy. If you look at the diversity of collections—and the RH specifications that ASHRAE has provided for museums—there is no simple answer. Many institutions have embraced fairly narrow specifications that seem to work for a broad group of objects. Now, as we discuss broadening those specifications, we create confusion, and it becomes more complicated to assess risks.
LEVIN Is embracing a more complex approach and selling it to your colleagues who are not conservators one of the challenges you have?
BÜLOW For the longest time in the United Kingdom, most institutions have used BS 5454, which actually is an archive standard, but it has environmental criteria in it and has been widely adopted. More recently, the publicly available standard PAS 198 has come out, which takes a risk-based approach. The difficulty with it is exactly this educational element. It puts the question back to the collection manager—basically, “What is it that you want? How long are you intending to keep this for, or what would be an acceptable loss?” You have to answer these questions for yourself before you can specify anything, and that is difficult.
DE RUIJTER You also have to take into account the significance of the object. We try to find a balance between the benefit of use for the museum and the risk of use from the point of collection management. The conservator should not have to justify but has to clarify why he thinks it's a risk for the object. It's very important to talk about this. It is the director who has to make the final decision.
RICHARD The risk management approach is in essence what we've been doing for a long time. We have developed environmental specifications that have worked for our collections and local climates. When asked to loan objects to dramatically different environments, most conservators have applied a case-by-case evaluation approach. That is why the idea of adopting universal specs for all objects is challenging. Conditions vary so much from one place to another.
BOERSMA Are conservators ready for this new challenge of being part of the process of reevaluating environmental conditions?
BÜLOW Conservators are well placed to help in the process of making those decisions. However, it's my experience that conservation attracts a rather introverted breed of people, and now we're asking them to become communicators and analysts. A common mistake conservators make is getting stuck on what they think they need to do, rather than thinking of what the institution actually wants to do. It's when we think that we have to spend nine hundred hours conserving a single book that things go wrong.
DE RUIJTER Management has to see that the conservator's role has changed. The conservator also wants to achieve an exhibition and is dedicated to the deadline. The conservator has to manage the use of the collection in a way that is best for the museum and has to keep an eye on cost-benefit.
RICHARD It is a credit to the conservation community that we have increasingly become part of helping institutions solve problems, as opposed to creating them. It is a gross generalization, but if we look back a number of years, conservators often were the ones who said, “You can't do that.” Conservators today are trying harder to look at the big picture and to be problem solvers.
DE RUIJTER If you want to be part of the solution, you have to be part of the process to come to the solution—and I don't feel that we are always part of the process.
LEVIN As Anna said, this requires greater engagement on the part of conservators who traditionally have been accustomed to working in a more isolated way. Isn't the need to be part of the problem-solving process also an opportunity to bring conservation into more sunlight?
RICHARD It is incredibly important that we be part of the solution. With an increase in attention to preventive conservation, problem solving has become more important in conservation training. Knowledge of preventive conservation better equips young conservators to address sustainability issues.
DE RUIJTER Conservators sometimes do think too much about single objects when they need to think about the goals for their collections. Of course there are single objects that need special consideration, particularly if they are chosen for exhibition. But we conservators need to think more about the whole collection and not just the object.
BÜLOW Conservators too often see themselves as victims of other people's decisions. They need to step up to the plate and be more proactive rather than complain about others. They have to work to get themselves involved from an early stage. That does happen—but it's not as widespread as I would like. I've learned that I have to convince the other party that involving me at an earlier stage is an advantage for them. For example, at the National Archives I took the initiative, called people to the table, and said, “You are my stakeholders in this, and when you plan digitization projects you can do it cheaper and more efficiently if you involve conservation early. We can predict the problems, and we can tell you how long it's going to take.” This is the attitude I'd like to see among my colleagues—trying to preempt problems by being right there at the front.
RICHARD At the National Gallery, I am a bit spoiled—or very lucky—in that conservation is engaged early in projects affecting the collection. For example, we have a team of people that focuses on special exhibitions, and the conservators become involved early. This has often improved safety for the objects, avoided some complications, and reduced costs.