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Subject: Environmental control

Environmental control

From: Barbara Appelbaum <aandh>
Date: Wednesday, August 7, 1996
(This posting is in response to the 15 July posting by Charles
Tumosa which wqas in response to my 11 July posting which was in
response to the posting of a few days previous.)

I want to express my apologies at opening this particular can of
worms; my original intent was not to start a major correspondence
but simply to alert the person who was so happy to hear that the
Smithsonian scientists said that institutions could save millions on
environmental control that everything is more complicated than it at
first appears, that any institution needs to do serious homework or
talk to someone who knows the field and the particulars of its
situation, collections, etc.

However, the can is open, and I believe it holds some more
interesting worms than I had expected.  Mr. Tumosa expressed his
shock at the "visceral rather than intellectual nature" of the
criticism aimed at the work of him and his colleagues and claimed
that the press release in question was not meant to substitute for
serious intellectual inquiry. The press release was, however, sent
to people whose job in the museum world is not intellectual inquiry
but balancing budgets (as far as I know it was not sent to
conservators).  The bottom line was saving millions of dollars, not
conveying research results, and the statement that ordinary
household air conditioners are sufficient for museum climate control
in no way derives from any research.

I would like to go beyond our mutual vilification, as much fun as it
undoubtedly is for bystanders, and open some serious discussion on
the relationship between science and conservation, the differences
between the professional responsibilities of conservators and
scientists, and the chasm between research data and recommendations
for collections management.  These are important matters, and seldom

One example:  Mr. Tumosa's statement that representing the museum
environment as a series of microclimates is "in contradiction to
everyone's experience."  It may make messy science, but in fact
every building, whether mechanically controlled or not, is a series
of microclimates, and collections are purposely arranged to take
advantage of those microclimates.  Lobbies, boiler rooms, rooms with
windows, rooms with no exterior exposure, classrooms, and
auditoriums are all part of museums.  Studies have shown wide
variation in RH and temperature even within one room.  Environments
within glazed frames and exhibition cases are of course quite
different again.  Knowing what these natural microclimates are,
designing some new ones , and arranging collections in them based on
susceptibilities is a major tactic in collections management.

Another issue that separates scientists from conservators is the
fundamental notion in the field of conservation that every object is
unique.  We do not imply that physical laws rule, only that each
particular thing has its quirks stemming from peculiarities of its
own construction and history as well as from its cultural meaning.

Take for example the class of coated wooden objects.  Data exist on
the dimensional response of various species to RH changes, and the
changes in behavior with certain coatings (although not specifically
the coatings that conservators use or many of those on actual
objects).  Yet the magnitude, direction, and rate of dimensional
change for an object depend on a host of factors including the
orientation and position of the wood on the tree, the number and
relative grain orientation of joined pieces, the elasticity,
permeability, and adhesion of the coating(s) and the number and
orientation of surfaces to which it has been applied,the
environmental, maintenance, and treatment history of the object, the
amount of surface exposed by original shaping and by insect
tunneling, etc.

Another set of variables governs how the the degree to which any
dimensional change affects the physical integrity of the object, and
a different set determines how the cultural or aesthetic meaning is
affected by the damage.  The use of the term damage is in itself a
cultural one, not a scientific one.  Given a totem pole and a
telephone pole, a panel painting and a shop sign, Babe Ruth's
baseball bat and George Washington's bed frame, how can any set of
data be used to make recommendations on environmental control?

If data on material response were the primary factor on which
decisions on museum environment were to be made, then the US
Constitution should get the same level of care as the earliest known
menu from the Waldorf Astoria that mentions Waldorf Salad.

In the interests of not writing another book, I will only say that
institutional matters like staffing levels, budget, building
construction, and a host of others are as important, if not more so,
than any of the above.

In other words, it is not logical to base recommendations for any
collections management parameters only on data from materials
testing.  I did not mean to say the the Smithsonian team had not
published their data; my problem is that the arithmetic that went
into the money savings figures has not been published, nor has much
of the discussion that is needed to illustrate how their data got
them to their conclusions about what museums should do.  This is the
discussion that is missing, and this is why open discussion in an
AIC meeting is vital. That Mr. Tumosa and his colleagues had to pull
out of the AIC session for reasons out of their control I can't
argue with, but certainly it is unprecedented in AIC history.

One additional issue:  scientists are responsible to the integrity
of their data; conservators are responsible for the well-being of
objects. Tempting museum administrators with multimillion dollar
savings based on the idea that the field of conservation has been
mistaken about environmental control is something that conservators
feel is irresponsible.  Are there savings to be had?  In some cases,
yes, but at the least let's remember that you can only save millions
if you are already spending millions. Are there improvements to made
in environmental control that don't cost a fortune?  Of course, if
they haven't been made already.  Are there now data that change the
way collections should be managed?  I don't think so.  When the
Smithsonian museums follow their own staff's advice and publish the
results, we can all learn something.

Barbara Appelbaum

                  Conservation DistList Instance 10:16
                 Distributed: Wednesday, August 7, 1996
                       Message Id: cdl-10-16-002
Received on Wednesday, 7 August, 1996

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