PREVENTIVE CONSERVATION AND THE EXHIBITION PROCESS: DEVELOPMENT OF EXHIBIT GUIDELINES AND STANDARDS FOR CONSERVATION
TOBY J. RAPHAEL
4 BARRIERS TO CONSERVATION-FRIENDLY EXHIBITIONS
The exhibit development process followed by the NPS, and that of most cultural institutions, has not fostered collaboration among the museum exhibit specialists and conservators. Too often the process has engendered isolation of the team players and poor communication among these specialists. For a number of complex reasons the process, or lack of process, seems to fall short of producing the well-balanced solutions that are needed for a fully successful exhibition. For instance, in reality:
- Different exhibit specialists rarely utilize a standardized process for developing exhibits.
- There are few routine procedures for incorporating conservation concerns.
- Rarely do exhibit designs take full advantage of both the most current design possibilities and state-of the-art preservation features.
- Rarely are summative evaluations included to establish whether an exhibition is successful from a preservation standpoint.
One reason museum exhibitions do not consistently achieve the highest level of preservation is because of deficiencies in general staff preparation and training. There is a lack of cross-training between exhibit specialists and conservators, and it is fair to say that neither of these museum specialists is prepared to interact successfully. Just as there is too little focus on the exhibit process within conservation training programs, conservation training for exhibit specialists is mostly non-existent.
- Within conservation training programs, exhibit developers, planners, and designers are rarely seen and familiarity with the exhibit development process is, for the most part, not emphasized.
- Because formal training programs are rare, museum exhibit planners and designers often have little familiarity with conservation, and specialists in commercial firms have even less opportunity to actually work with a conservator.
- Museum personnel, in general, are not taught the importance of balancing preservation and use criteria for exhibitions, and most have not had access to written guidance on how to facilitate conservation-friendly exhibitions.
The lack of a methodical development process for exhibits and a deficient understanding of how to incorporate conservation concerns frequently creates an impasse resulting in frustration and unwillingness to compromise. Project after project has shown that where poor communication persists, low expectations and unhelpful assumptions come into play. Many exhibit specialists hold the belief that conservators are uncompromising and are not friends of the exhibition but merely advocates for the collections. Preservation requirements and exhibit conservation features can be complex and often appear elusive to exhibit specialists. Collection and conservation staffs often lack the experience and technical understanding needed to communicate their needs in ways that designers and fabricators can understand. Conservators are rarely comfortable reading blueprint drawings and using the design/fabrication language of specifications.
These communication limitations have served to limit access to the body of conservation knowledge, which has, in turn, had a serious and negative impact on the exhibit process and ultimately the collections. To begin to address this problem, the author began to develop conservation guidelines designed to improve the working relationship between conservators and exhibit specialists.