Appropriate Design Solutions
Experience and research have consistently shown that the design of the overall exhibit space (the macroenvironment) and the exhibit cabinetry (the microenvironment) affects the long-term condition of objects. Preservation-responsible exhibition design need not be an all-or-nothing proposition. Conservation criteria can be met using a variety of design options. By selecting the appropriate level of conservation response, the exhibit design can be tailored to specific object requirements.
Preservation-responsible design involves conscious choices and tradeoffs. Not all objects require the same level of conservation concern. Some exhibits require no special precautions, while others mandate very stringent measures. Working together, the designer and conservator consider how different design options will affect the objects and their needs. The curator and the team member administering the budget often help decide on the final, balanced approach.
- Design for stability and protection. Choose an appropriate and efficient response from among the multiple options available. Consider what level of protection is obtainable and what kinds of trade-offs each will impose on the conservation criteria. Risk assessment factors include environmental and structural stability, both rare catastrophic and slow cumulative risks.
- Consider both macro and micro approaches. Weigh the benefits and costs of addressing conservation criteria throughout the exhibition against creating micro solutions using exhibit cases.
Multilevel Conservation ResponseExhibit Area Preservation Features and Control) outlines some of the options available to resolve conservation concerns in the exhibit room. Exhibit Case Preservation Features and Control summarizes the options available to control the micro-environment in exhibit cases.
The principal difference between macro and micro strategies is the size and scope of the conservation features required. Managing the environment throughout the building or exhibit space is ideal, because all exhibit elements and collections will be under identical conditions. In many institutions, however, this approach proves unrealistic, unfeasible, or not cost-efficient. A smaller-scale, more self-contained approach satisfies the conservation criteria locally. The goal is to separate the vulnerable objects from the sources of deterioration and control the immediate surroundings of the objects on display.
Most successful exhibitions employ both macro and micro strategies, letting practicality and financial requirements guide design. These exhibits strive for a balanced approach that does not require excessive staff time or maintenance over the life of the exhibit. A main goal common to both strategies is attaining appropriate environmental and physical protection. Exhibit design should account for down times when the well-engineered feature or system fails and the impact on collections must be carefully considered. Calculate the risks for various design options; establish how long the exhibit can exist under a major failure and project the outcomes in terms of collection safety. Build in safeguards and redundant protection when necessary.
Examine and compare the design options. A discussion about climate control, for example, might differentiate between two strategies:
- Macroclimate solution - Start by understanding the nature and capability of your building environment (including climate, light, and pollutants) and how it matches your general and specific object needs. Also critical, is understanding your seasonal outdoor environmental conditions and assessing your environmental data. If you are using an active environmental system, understand potential for failure and plan for these situations. The temperature and humidity in the entire exhibit space can be controlled with the building's mechanical system, either by adjusting existing equipment or by installing additional room-specific HVAC and humidifier units. This approach provides optimum protection for all objects, but it is not always practical. The disadvantages include the expense of installation, operation, and service; the difficulty of installing new duct work and piping; and the potential for damage to buildings in winter when elevated humidity levels are maintained.
- Microclimate solution - When tight control of the entire macroclimate is impractical for financial or technological reasons, or when only a few of the objects require a more stringent environment, creating a microclimate within an exhibit case is a useful design tool. Because microclimates cannot be created in traditional museum casework, a specially designed, well-sealed, climate-controlled case must be constructed. This approach involves higher cost; longer design and construction time; tighter adherence to design specifications; and stricter exclusion of certain hazardous construction materials. Note that inadequate or incompatible choice of construction materials can be a source of pollution inside a contained environment, particularly for materials that are at risk for deterioration when exposed to these byproducts.
(See Section on Exhibit Case Design, for more information about creating microclimates.)
Exhibit Format and Layout
- Use enclosed display when possible. Avoid open display except in historic house museums and some gallery settings or when an object's size makes enclosure impractical. Open display should never be a routine exhibition option or one chosen solely for financial reasons.
- Allow sufficient room for traffic flow. Design the exhibit to avoid accidents. Provide adequate space through the exhibit and around exhibit cases for the easy movement of individuals, groups, and people in wheelchairs.
- Group similar objects. Consolidating the location of collections with similar conservation criteria will make it easier and less expensive to meet the design goals.
Open or Enclosed Display?
Any group of objects displayed without protective enclosures can be defined as an open exhibit. Given the inherent problems for collections care and preservation, open display is rare for long-term museum exhibits, except those in historic buildings and sculpture or painting galleries. Usually, open displays are limited to temporary exhibits and the display of reproductions or oversized artifacts. The ultimate decision to display objects outside protective enclosures must consider the following variables:
- Length of the proposed exhibit
- Condition of the proposed objects
- Sensitivity of objects to off-gassing from display and construction materials
- Environmental conditions of the exhibit space
- Likelihood of visitor contact with or handling of objects
- Likelihood of vandalism and theft
- Availability of curatorial maintenance resources
Open display requires special security arrangements and regularly scheduled maintenance procedures, which involve long-term, frequently ignored costs. An added problem in such displays is the importance of limiting dust infiltration and moderating the environmental conditions in the entire exhibition area.
Although display in cases is the norm for most museum exhibits, the benefits of enclosure are rarely calculated methodically. If designed appropriately, an exhibit case can protect its contents from most forms of physical damage and deterioration. An exhibit case can be designed to:
- Prevent object handling and incidental touching
- Decrease the threat of theft and vandalism
- Stop insect and rodent access
- Block out dust and foreign substances
- Buffer collections from rapid changes in temperature and relative humidity
- Remove or limit harmful light radiation
- Allow for the use of environment modifying agent (such as absorbers for atmospheric pollutants, moisture responsive substances, and oxygen scavengers)
Pathways through the exhibit and around freestanding casework must allow unrestricted, safe movement of people and wheelchairs. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards call for a minimum of 36 inches for any walkway and a 60-inch diameter for turns. Cases or other display components that protrude from a wall should allow a 27-inch clearance from the floor.
A well-designed floor plan also allows for human behavior. For example, a freestanding case should not be placed where it is likely to be bumped. A fragile object is at risk if visitors can touch or brush against it, if its display pedestal or case can be rocked or moved, or if it is not mounted securely to prevent falling over. The educational programs associated with many exhibits require an area where schoolchildren and tour groups can gather. Such spaces should be located away from areas of heavy object density.
While interpretive and practical considerations are the primary criteria when designing the exhibition layout, creative, thoughtful design can alleviate conservation- related difficulties within the exhibit space. For example, blocking windows can allow safe display of light-sensitive objects. Grouping objects that have similar humidity requirements within the same case means that a micro- climate display case is both practical and cost-effective. Likewise, grouping light-sensitive objects gives the designer more flexibility in the exhibit lighting plan.
The presentation of displayed objects involves overlapping design and conservation strategies. Thoughtful arrangement of objects inside a case facilitates their installation, periodic maintenance, rotation and emergency removal.
Objects that must be displayed in the open, especially oversized objects, require sufficient space and specialized mounts to prevent accidental damage. However, the need for barriers increases the overall space required for the safe exhibit of these pieces. On the other hand, a high-security exhibit case protects its valuable contents from theft but strongly influences the interpretive and aesthetic options.
Risk Management for Exhibits
Designing Exhibit Environments
- Know the environment. Monitor an exhibit space for one year to obtain baseline information about the temperature and relative humidity. Review these environmental data for each exhibit to determine if existing conditions meet the conservation criteria.
- Control the environment within the entire exhibit space. In general, keep temperature between 60 and 70°F (15.5 and 21°C) and relative humidity between 40 and 60%, eliminating rapid cycling of temperature and relative humidity. Requirements for special objects and certain geographical areas may vary.
- Locate sensitive objects in the most stable locations. Do not place moisture-sensitive collections in the path of direct sunlight, near heating or air-conducting ducts, against external walls, or in damp locations such as basements. Avoid putting cases and framed works along exterior walls.
- Provide additional control for sensitive objects. When appropriate use sealed cases to slow air exchange and thus stabilize environments inside cases. Consider creating a microclimate by incorporating silica gel or other climate control products within cases that contain moisture-sensitive materials.
- Monitor pollutants and enclose sensitive objects. Incorporate air filters in ventilated case designs or seal exhibit enclosures sufficiently to prevent particulate entry. (see TechNotes Monitoring Pollutants Inside an Exhibit Case)
- Use high-efficiency filters. HVAC equipment should remove particles down to 1-0.3 microns (60-80%). Change filters regularly.
- Use localized filtration equipment as needed. If improving filtration throughout the museum is not feasible, consider using room-sized units in construction areas or within the exhibit space.
- Assess the objects for their sensitivity and specific exhibition needs. Design the exhibition based on this preservation assessment, including appropriate use of space that includes factors such as building environmental and exhibition conditions. This may also determine case requirements such as how airtight to make the case (see TechNotes section: Sealing of Exhibit Cases).
- Select stable materials and products for case construction and finish layers. Based on the above assessment, avoid materials known to interact with the collection items due to emitted hazardous gases, becoming acidic, and/or losing physical or chemical stability with age. (see: Choice of Appropriate Materials for Exhibition, Storage and Transport) Testing may be required during the iterative material selection process. (see related section??)
- Use selected materials in ways that minimize the potential for gaseous emissions. This includes applying appropriate coatings, sealants, or separating layers, and allowing appropriate drying and aeration for materials such as paint and adhesives. Ideally a drying period of 4 weeks is recommended before using exhibit cases, and 1 or 2 weeks of aeration for the exhibit gallery prior to installation. Note that although there is little data for aeration of exhibit spaces (such as individual galleries or rooms), an appropriate drying and aeration period is recommended to evacuate volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from paints, coatings, sealants, or even materials listed as low volatility compounds.
- Monitor pollutants inside and outside the case. Assess the air quality within the museum and inside exhibition cases to ensure that the conservation criteria for the exhibit are fulfilled throughout the lifetime of the exhibition/display cases [especially if cases are re-used regularly]. (see TechNote: Monitoring Pollutants Inside and Exhibit Case).
- Limit total light exposure. Best practices include limiting light exposure (duration x intensity) and removing/reducing ultraviolet (UV) radiation even when using newer forms of light emitting diode (LED) lighting.
- An excellent comprehensive reference, Museum Lighting: A Guide for Conservators and Curators (David Saunders, ISBN 978-1-60606-637-9, Getty Conservation Institute, 2020) can be found here: https://shop.getty.edu/products/museum-lighting-a-guide-for-conservators-and-curators-978-1606066379
- Provide separate lighting for security checks, exhibit cleaning and maintenance, object installation, and other routine work. Turn off lights during nonpublic hours to avoid exposing objects unnecessarily. When possible, use occupancy sensors in the room or at the case to turn lighting on only as necessary.
- Examine objects or signs of infestation and active mold as part of the preliminary condition check. lf signs of infestation are found, consult a conservator about treatment options.
- Design exhibits to inhibit infestations. Make sure the exhibit area is insect-proof by screening open windows or doors, filling gaps in the building construction, and avoiding gaps and undercuts where dust can collect.
- Enclose objects. When the risk of infestation is high, place susceptible objects inside well-sealed cases or sealed acrylic boxes to prevent new infestation. Limit the gaps and holes to prevent insect entry.
- Avoid introducing insects through props and unchecked exhibit materials. Do not use wool carpets and other materials that attract and harbor insects. Avoid using organic exhibit props. Fumigate vegetative props or expose them to freezing temperatures before bringing them into the museum.
- Control human behaviors that encourage infestation. During exhibit production and installation and after the exhibit opens, never allow food in the object holding areas or the exhibit space, even if no objects are in the area.
Designing Secure Exhibits
- Conduct a risk assessment. Identify the likelihood of theft and vandalism. Provide protection against human damage. Exhibits in a museum with a history of vandalism and theft may require additional security measures.
- Provide the appropriate level of protection. Tailor security features to the vulnerability of the objects. Highly vulnerable and valuable objects require more sophisticated protection measures than others.
- Use tamper resistant case hardware. Mount objects to panels or shelves, bolt freestanding cases to the floor, and lock exhibit cases.
- Facilitate authorized curatorial access to the objects. Each object in an exhibit should be readily removable without having to remove or disturb adjacent objects.
- Develop fire protection and emergency response plans. The museum staff should have an emergency plan for each exhibit space. The plans should minimize threats to museum objects, protecting them during a disaster, during their evacuation, and after a disaster.
- Perform a risk assessment and address potential problems. Anticipate the types of damage that may occur to display objects. For example, avoid placing objects, especially if they are water sensitive, in the path of fire sprinkler heads.
Exhibit Design Standards
The following standards are suggested for developing best practices for exhibitions within an institution. click on the Standards below to view the associated guidelines that expand on the topic.
The exhibit design plan must meet the Conservation Requirements for the exhibit objects
The exhibit design must utilize Exhibit Enclosures whenever possible and must always be carefully designed to promote object safety and fulfill the Conservation Requirements
Exhibit mounts and supports must be carefully designed to promote object safety and fulfill the Conservation Requirements
Design and selection of furnishings within the exhibit space must support object safety
Materials used within the exhibit space for construction, furnishing, decoration and interpretive settings must be object-safe
The exhibit’s physical layout [spatial design] must promote object safety
Effective conservation measures [design, controls and policies] must protect objects from harmful light exposure
Effective security measures [design, controls and policies] must provide the appropriate level of security for objects
Appropriate prevention measures must protect objects from fire and water damage
Appropriate measures [design, controls and policies] must protect objects from harmful exposure to pollutants
Effective measures [design, controls and policies] must maintain object-safe temperature and relative humidity
Appropriate measures must protect exhibit objects from damage by pests
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Pages in category "Exhibit Design"
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