Incorporating preservation as an integral part of the planning process, museums can ensure preservation-responsible design, integrate conservation concerns early, commit sufficient time and resources, and recognize the shared responsibility for preservation among exhibit team members.
Conservation and the Exhibit Process
The importance of introducing conservation early in the exhibit process cannot be overemphasized. Museum exhibition experience has shown that an object-friendly exhibit can be achieved most effectively and efficiently when object conservation is included as a priority at the beginning of an exhibit’s development. For the purpose of these guidelines, the term "object" may refer to three-dimensional pieces but also photographs, books, parchments, or any other cultural heritage placed in an exhibit display case.
Integrating Conservation into the Exhibit Process
- Integrate conservation early in the exhibit planning phase. Make a commitment to preserving objects placed on exhibit by including conservation concerns throughout the development and production of the exhibit.
- Provide adequate time and resources. Build in enough time for development and review of technical designs, case prototypes, lighting mock-ups, and the testing of proposed materials. The schedule must allow for safe handling, exhibit mount making, and installation. Budget for tasks, such as treatment, material selection and testing, and special casework.
- Search for balanced and appropriate solutions. Chose conservation solutions that efficiently meet the needs of the specific exhibit circumstances.
The Exhibit Process
The development and production of an exhibit are organic processes. By incorporating preservation as an integral part of the process, a museum can create an exhibit that fulfills its educational intent, is aesthetically engaging, and provides a protective environment for the objects. Each person involved in the exhibit process has some responsibility to ensure that museum objects are not damaged as a result of display. Conservators serve as part of the overall exhibit team helping to bring about a balance between preservation and display
Dual Responsibilities of Museums
The common mission of museums—to collect, preserve, and interpret collections—involves a complex web of responsibilities. The preservation commitment is to long-term conservation of the artistic, natural, and cultural resources entrusted to an institution. Exhibits are important and effective interpretive tools, but they expose objects to conditions that can damage them. Exhibition and preservation do not have be at conflict if appropriate and balanced conservation solutions are employed.
An exhibit's design and environmental conditions have profound effects on the long-term preservation of museum objects. Exposure to intense light, wide variations in temperature and humidity or excessive humidity, dust and pollutants, and inappropriate handling and mounting techniques can irreparably damage objects. On the other hand, objects illuminated at relatively low light levels, housed in an environment with stable temperature and humidity, protected by appropriate physical barriers and supported by protective mounts will remain in good physical condition.
Conservation and the Exhibit ProcessConservation is a thread to be woven through every stage of the exhibit process. The conservator's expertise is too often introduced late—in some cases, after the initial design has been approved. It is costly and difficult, if not impossible, to retrofit exhibits. The challenge is to design and produce preservation-responsible exhibits that also attract and inform the public. Discussion and cooperation among the designer, curator, and conservator at the beginning of a project can ensure a successful balance.
Successful inclusion of conservation means the involvement of conservators in key exhibit decisions and the provision of critical conservation services. This diagram graphically represents the phases of design development and the documents that relate to each phase. Integrate conservation into these four aspects of exhibit development:
- Planning: Object selection should take into account the current condition and future welfare of each object. Include a conservator in the selection process. Allowing sufficient time and resources to address the preservation requirements established by the conservation criteria is critical to the conservation success of an exhibit.
- Design: The conservation criteria affect the design concept, display format, material selection, and layout. Sensitive collections may require specific climatic conditions. The lighting plan should reflect a concern for light-sensitive objects. Materials used to create the display may require review or testing to mitigate possible degradation from off-gassing or other unwanted chemical interactions that could damage collections.
- Fabrication: The methods used to build the exhibit environment should meet the conservation criteria. All materials used in exhibit casework require careful selection, inspection, and testing to ensure that they will not damage the objects they house.
- Installation: The installation process should be orchestrated to avoid damaging collections, with specific care given to the handling of objects. Object mounts are a special area of conservation concern and the development of an exhibit maintenance manual is critical in providing preservation information.
This checklist highlights the steps in exhibit development (planning and design) and production (fabrication and installation) that require conservation involvement. Conservation will play a greater role in some phases than in others. Issues such as environmental conditions and object handling are a concern throughout the process. Some issues even affect whether an exhibit proposal is carried to fruition and which objects are placed on view. Information on material testing can be found on the AIC Materials Testing - Wiki.
Commitment of Time and Resources
As solutions to conservation concerns are worked out, more planning and design time may be required. Time for appropriate collections management, such as the tracking and proper handling of objects, must also be allowed. Material selection and testing may be an iterative process; if certain materials do not pass review/testing, more time may be needed to find replacement materials. Providing sufficient time to construct and test case mockups ensures that elements of conservation design actually perform as intended. Likewise, the exhibit budget must include special conservation features and costs, such as archival framing, sealed cases, or additional security measures.
The Exhibit Team
- Work cooperatively and share conservation responsibility. Each team member should take responsibility for understanding basic conservation issues and working with other members to achieve preservation-sensitive displays. The search for balanced and appropriate solutions often requires compromise.
- Utilize supportive design staff. Use designers who are experienced in working with exhibit conservators and firms that have a history of producing preservation-responsible exhibits.
- Require the highest construction standards. Develop drawings and specifications that clearly articulate the intended conservation features; consider including performance criteria. Oversee production contractors to ensure that conservation components are built as specified.
Preservation-Minded Design Team
The exhibit team ideally includes a project manager, a designer, a curator, an educator, a registrar, a preparator or installer, and a conservator. Team membership may vary depending on the institution. Teams in smaller institutions may have fewer members, while some projects may require additional participants, such as a security specialist.
Each member shares responsibility for ensuring the immediate safety and long-term preservation of the objects and each should have a basic understanding of conservation issues. A cooperative and creative approach to problem solving is critical to the successful incorporation of conservation. The anticipated contributions of team members is also provided in table format.
Exhibit team members must be willing to work together to arrive at practical, effective solutions to preservation- responsible design. An exhibit conservator will recommend steps to protect an object, but there may be several ways to fulfill a recommendation. Likewise, some conservation recommendations are more critical than others. The solution depends on both the urgency of the conservation criteria and the practical limitations imposed by the exhibit budget and schedule.
Two key team members are the exhibit conservator and the designer. The conservator focuses on how display techniques and materials may affect the short- and long-term preservation of objects. Implementing conservation criteria involves time and expense, so the conservator's recommendations must be realistic. Exhibit conservators must be committed to serving as the liaison between the conservation and exhibit fields, easing the process rather than creating barriers.
Whether choosing a staff designer or contracting with a design firm, conservation sensitivity should be a requirement. Designers need to be conversant with conservation concerns, including material selection, case construction, lighting design, and display formats and mounts. Look for previous experience with exhibits that included a conservator's involvement, and talk with conservators who have worked with the candidate. In each contract with an exhibit firm, outline the firm's responsibility to address conservation concerns.
Specifications and Production Staff
An important responsibility of the exhibit team is defining production specifications with conservation elements in mind. Establish clear specifications, especially for case construction, lighting system installation, and mount fabrication. Be explicit when communicating the production details to the production workers.
The exhibit conservator should help establish the performance criteria (if they are required) for conservation elements of an exhibit and approve all drawings and written specifications. Inspections during production are the best way to guarantee that specifications are followed.
Conservation awareness on the part of exhibit fabricators and preparators encourages responsibility for meeting specifications. When selecting a contract production firm, evaluate not only the ability to meet exacting specifications but also the willingness to make the special effort required. In all production contracts, include some form of conservation inspection for critical components. For instance, inspections are needed to verify that the exhibit meets construction specifications, cases meet physical and performance requirements, exhibit lighting functions properly, and object mounts are satisfactory.
The Role of the Conservator
- Include a conservator on the exhibit team. Select a conservator who has experience with exhibit or preventive conservation, areas of conservation that focus on protecting collections in different environments. Often, a part-time consultant is sufficient.
- Involve the exhibit conservator in the earliest stages and throughout the exhibit process. An exhibit conservator should set conservation criteria, participate in planning and design meetings, review conservation-related decisions, and assess prototypes and exhibit work after installation.
The conservator establishes the conservation criteria for an exhibit and then facilitates their implementation. This specialist lobbies for the important elements of the criteria and works actively with the designer to arrive at practical solutions for the long-term preservation of the objects. The conservator must advocate conservation objectives that are both necessary and appropriate.
The conservator must attend all design and production meetings that deal with conservation-related issues. In addition, the conservator should be involved in developing and evaluating prototypes intended to address conservation concerns, such as specialized casework or lighting design.
Summary of responsibilities:
- writes conservation criteria that guide the selection of museum collections and establishes the preservation specifications for the exhibit;
- assists in the selection of collections proposed for the exhibit, with regards to preservation factors;
- evaluates and documents the condition and susceptibility of artifacts selected for display;
- provides technical assistance to exhibit planners and designers;
- reviews plans and drawings from a conservation standpoint;
- selects methods for the control and monitoring of special exhibit environments;
- provides technical analysis of construction materials and consultation on other production issues;
- inspects and assesses the fabricated exhibit components; and
- makes recommendations on specialized support mounts and sometimes serves as mount maker.
Finding a Conservator
Not all conservators have the necessary experience to serve in a coordinating role during the exhibit process. The conservator whose primary role is treating collections may not be the best candidate. In addition to conservation treatment expertise, the appropriate conservator will have firsthand experience in the practical demands of exhibit production. Such experience allows the conservator to bridge the conservation and exhibit fields, facilitating the exhibit process rather than simply introducing conservation requirements or restrictions. Experience to look for in a conservator includes:
- a degree from a conservation program or comparable course work and internship experience;
- additional job experience beyond formal training;
- some experience as a practicing conservator;
- broad experience in preventive conservation;
- knowledge of recent technological advances in exhibit conservation and preventive conservation; and
- experience in planning and setting up exhibits and working with exhibit teams.
The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) maintains a searchable referral system for practicing conservators. The system includes their fields of specialization as well as geographic location. AIC's website also offers tips on hiring a conservation professional.
Another way to locate a conservator is through a referral from a museum or a design firm that has experience working with conservators. Publications and speaker lists from related conferences may also identify qualified candidates. Interview potential conservators and check their references. Candidates should have professional membership in AIC.
Successful integration of conservation into an exhibit is achieved by selecting appropriate objects for display and providing exhibit conditions conducive to their protection. Collectively called the conservation criteria, these conditions are determined during the early planning stages and implemented throughout exhibit design and production. Adequate funding, personnel, and time to carry out the conservation criteria must be allocated to the exhibit project.
- Select appropriate display objects. Make the selection in conjunction with a conservator who can establish whether the objects are stable enough to exhibit (with or without treatment) and the ramifications of exhibiting them.
- Avoid selecting too many objects. Review the number of objects that can be accommodated safely within the available space.
- Consider the aesthetics and treatment requirements of each object. Object selection should include curatorial review of the visual message to be presented. Incomplete, deteriorated, or dirty objects may require extensive treatment.
- Avoid permanent exhibit of objects. Vulnerable objects should be rotated, substituted with alternate objects, or replaced with reproductions. When possible, use a reproduction to demonstrate the function of an object.
- Allow adequate time and resources. Do not underestimate the time required to prepare, mount, install, or replicate exhibit objects.
The decision to place an object on view is guided by risk assessment: It's current condition, its susceptibility to future damage, and the anticipated environmental conditions in the exhibit space. Some objects may be too sensitive or irreplaceable to be displayed without extensive conservation treatments, complex design safeguards, or a rotation program.
Moreover, certain exhibit spaces may be inappropriate for the display of some collections. Therefore it is important to involve a conservator in the selection process so that objects can be chosen that are appropriate to the exhibit conditions.
Conservation science research has helped conservators recognize distinct categories of vulnerability within collections. Material components can be identified for their display sensitivities and objects can be assigned an exhibit status to be used in the selection process. (A 17th century, embroidered sampler might be categorized as "extreme sensitivity; limited exhibit duration: six months every five years.") Objects with composite materials are judged by their most vulnerable component. The stability of colorants to light is an especially complex area that requires a conservator's input before selections are made.
The distance objects will be transported and the risks associated with transit must be considered carefully during object selection. Traveling exhibits present special concerns, including excessive handling during packing and unpacking, shock and vibration during transport, and shifts in temperature and humidity. Only the most stable objects should be considered eligible for a multivenue exhibit.
Borrowing objects from other institutions may augment an exhibit, but loans can add to the complexity of the exhibit process. The record keeping, handling, and display of loan materials must meet the high standards set for an institution's own collections. In addition, the lending institution may require more stringent conservation or security safeguards that must be incorporated into the conservation criteria.
A common problem is selecting too many objects and underestimating the display and exhibit space they require. Overcrowding in an exhibit makes object placement, exhibit maintenance and cleaning, and retrieval potentially damaging; objects should not be exhibited on top of or overlapping one another. The dimensions of the exhibit space and the existing cases must accommodate the quantity and size of selected objects.
Sufficient time and resources must be available for the preparation and conservation treatment of the objects chosen. Selected artifacts or artworks may have been stored for many years or may be heavily worn from use in the past. For nearly all exhibits, objects will require some level of cleaning, stabilization, or repair before they can be safely or appropriately exhibited. Unstable objects undergoing active deterioration (such as surface flaking and corrosion) will require time-consuming treatment by a conservator to ensure preservation; others may require reassembly, reconstruction, or special preparation for exhibit on custom-designed supports. An object in very poor condition may require extensive conservation treatment or restoration to approximate its original appearance or function.
In addition to considering preservation issues, the exhibit planner or curator must determine whether an object's appearance and condition relate to the theme and messages of the exhibit. Both time and money must be allocated for conservation treatment, regardless of the level of cleaning, stabilization, repair, or reconstruction.
The planned rotation of objects on and off exhibit (or the substitution of one vulnerable object for a pre-selected alternative after a certain display period) is a useful preservation approach. Practical considerations, such as a finite loan period, sometimes dictate object rotation or substitution. In terms of preservation, these actions will reduce light damage and physical distortion that long-term display can cause. Other alternatives include the use of facsimiles or reproductions, which can be kept on exhibit for longer time durations.
While rotation and substitution can be beneficial for object preservation, the exhibit design must incorporate the necessary logistics and the museum administration must commit the resources to follow through. In situations that do not allow safe display of a vulnerable object, a reproduction or facsimile of the original can be used. When reproductions or replicas are used, identify them as such.
The decision to demonstrate the function of an original piece of machinery, musical instrument, or other object must acknowledge that the object will suffer some accelerated deterioration. Use reproductions for demonstration when possible. Limit the use of materials in demonstrations or hands-on programs to non-collection items.
Establishing Conservation Criteria
- Review the objects. Examine each object chosen for display to determine its current condition and individualize its conservation requirements, and carefully consider its risks. Complete a written condition assessment of the objects
- Establish necessary and realistic conservation criteria. Base the requirements on an assessment of the individual objects, the likely environment in the exhibit space (including case environment, as appropriate), materials selection for exhibit design, and current conservation research.
- Incorporate conservation criteria into exhibit design. Incorporate the conservation recommendations into the exhibit design. The designer, conservator, curator, and other team members must work cooperatively to ensure practical display methods that preserve the objects.
The rate at which an object deteriorates depends on the inherent stability of the material, how it has been used, and the conditions to which it has been exposed. Conservation science studies the causes of material decay and evaluates methods to mitigate deterioration. Research, combined with decades of observation by curators, conservators, and other museum professionals, has identified the likely causes of accelerated decay for each type of collection material.
Conservators use this scientific research to specify the conservation criteria required to preserve an object with the least change in its physical, chemical, historic, scientific, aesthetic condition. The conservation criteria give the exhibit designer clear conservation goals to consider. Usually, the criteria limit the acceptable range of temperature and humidity, amount of light, and types of pollutants as well as the physical stresses that can be placed on objects. In addition, the conservation criteria alert the designer and preparator to any unique conditions that may affect handling or mounting.
Examination of objects for selection is the first step in establishing conservation criteria. The conservator evaluates the current condition of an object and considers its vulnerability to damage from situations likely to arise during an exhibit. Here is an example conservation criteria form. This along with a written condition assessment should be prepared and become a permanent part of the object's documentation.
Mitigating factors include the following:
- ability to protect objects from additional damage
- duration of the exhibit
- ambient environmental conditions in the exhibit space
- physical security and fire risks
- time and resources available to plan, produce, and maintain the exhibit
Setting Appropriate Criteria
Setting and implementing conservation criteria require time and expense, so the recommendations must be realistic and pragmatic. Because the various material
components of objects (and combinations of materials) deteriorate at different rates and in response to different conditions, tailoring recommendations to the specific objects is the only practical way to set meaningful criteria.
Establishing each conservation criterion requires a good deal of thought. Revisions may be necessary following reselection of objects, changes in exhibit design, or discussion with the curator and other exhibit team members.
Although institutional protocol determines the exact format of the conservation criteria, they should always be written. State truly critical requirements clearly, and make every effort to implement them; identify optional safeguards as such. When practical reasons make it difficult to meet the conservation criteria, team members share responsibility for mediating their differences and working out compromises.
Fulfilling the conservation criteria may not necessarily require additional expense or effort. For some objects or exhibits, the criteria will be met by using standard practices and common sense. When the conservation criteria for an object or an exhibit are very restrictive, however, the exhibit team members will need to collaborate on practical solutions to safeguard the collections.
The highest standards of curatorial care must be maintained throughout the exhibit process.
- Ensure safe handling. Provide training for anyone who handles an object during the exhibit process. Dedicate a clean, secure space for temporary storage of objects during exhibit development, construction, and installation.
- Stabilize all objects according to need. Have a conservator document their condition and provide a treatment proposal for those that require treatment. Secure the necessary funding for treating unstable objects before display.
- Include appropriate documentation. An exhibit object list should include the accession or catalogue number of each object. Photographs of the objects and floor plans marked with object location facilitate security and condition checks.
- Protect objects during photography. Limit an object's total exposure to light, and avoid overheating objects with studio lights. Use a flash system, especially for light-sensitive objects. Always provide appropriate support for objects.
Objects are handled often during the exhibit process, introducing repeated opportunities for damage. Handling instructions are therefore necessary for all exhibit team members dealing directly with collections.
Provide a clean, secure, and environmentally controlled holding area where objects can be stored temporarily while the installation is staged. When deciding on arrangement, reduce handling through the use of scale drawings or photographs of the objects.
Exhibit team members should be aware that handling some collection objects may, in rare cases, present health problems. Arsenic, for example, may be present in the dust of mounted natural history specimens: ethnographic objects and textiles may have been treated with insecticides. Some ethnographic objects, such as spears and arrow tips, may have been treated by their users with a poison. Certain geological materials are radioactive and must be regarded as hazardous materials. Such potential health hazards dictate special handling precautions such as the use of special gloves, respirator, and other protective gear and the bagging of suspect objects.
An unstable object (with corroding metals, flaking surfaces, or weak elements) cannot be expected to withstand the rigors of handling and exhibit without additional deterioration. Even in the best situations, the increased handling that accompanies the exhibit process, as well as a likely increase in exposure to light and changes in environmental conditions, will contribute some degree of wear and tear. To limit this damage, objects need to be in a stable condition at the beginning of the exhibit process, (or they must be stabilized as soon as possible). When moving exhibit objects, whatever their condition, they should always be on rigid, padded supports or in protective containers.
Each object selected for an exhibit should be accessioned and catalogued. A complete and accurate list of objects is important for security purposes and facilitates the tracking of objects during exhibit production; floor plans marked with object locations are also useful. A written condition assessment including photo documentation of each object prior to exhibit provides a benchmark for assessing any change in condition.
Loans may complement an exhibit, but they increase the level of documentation. The record keeping, handling, and display of loan materials must meet the high standards set for an institution's own collections and the requirements of the lending institution.
Objects are photographed during the exhibit process for several reasons. For example, a record shot may be used to identify objects during the production phases, or a photograph may be required for a graphic enlargement or a catalogue. Whatever the reason for the photograph, conservation needs to be considered during photography.
Limit the number of times an object is photographed. Restrict the time an object is exposed to light to seconds rather than minutes. Because photographic lighting systems produce intense heat and high light levels, position the object and focus the camera using ambient lighting first; the rise in air temperature from lighting should be limited to 10ºF (5.5ºC).
Using a synchronized flash instead of hot, continuously lit quartz or photo flood lights is always advisable for light-sensitive organic materials (such as paintings, paper, and textiles), and even when photographing glass, enamels, thin-gauge metals, and similar objects that can be damaged by thermal shock.
Follow appropriate museum techniques for handling and transporting objects at all times. Props used to hold an object in a certain configuration need to provide cushioned, even support so that no part is under stress; avoid waxes, glues, and clay to hold objects in place.
Exhibit Planning 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.
Conservation concerns must be addressed systematically throughout all phases of exhibit planning
Each exhibit team member must share in the responsibility to protect collection objects; and must work cooperatively to ensure object conservation
Appropriate collections management and collections care practices must be used throughout all exhibit phases
Movement of collection objects must be strictly limited and the transport of any exhibit objects must be carefully planned and implemented
Objects must be selected with regard to the specific needs of object preservation, as well as of the exhibit plan, and selection must be guided, in part, by an object’s vulnerability to damage and the exhibit’s ability to provide the appropriate protection
Objects selected for exhibit must be surveyed to establish their current condition and vulnerability to display and to provide an initial estimation of their individual treatment needs
The selected exhibit location must be assessed to ensure that it can provide a safe and non-hazardous environment for the objects on exhibit or that it can be sufficiently modified
A conservator must establish the Conservation Requirements for each exhibit object to provide the basis for deciding what conservation strategies and hazard mitigation features to include in the exhibit
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