Establishing the Conservation Criteria

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The conservation criteria for an exhibition relates the requirements for object preservation to the designer and other exhibit team members. The criteria forms the basis for incorporating conservation into the exhibition design.

What goes into creating the conservation criteria for an exhibit?

Ensuring the long-term preservation of the collections on display is a primary responsibility of the exhibit team. In order to design a preservation-responsible exhibit, it is necessary to establish the conservation criteria for the objects. These criteria should guide the development of the exhibition design. The individual responsible for setting the conservation requirements for an exhibit - usually the exhibit conservator - must be knowledgeable about both conservation and exhibition design.
The process of establishing the conservation criteria can be achieved with the four steps outlined below. Each step requires that a number of questions be answered. The two sample forms included in this TechNote can be used to facilitate the process. Use the Object Condition and Recommendation Report Form to assess the condition of individual objects (Step 2). Then use the Conservation Criteria Form to combine the requirements of individual objects into a format that can be used to design a preservation-responsible exhibit (Step 4). Please note that conservation criteria may also be established for individual exhibit cases, as illustrated by the sample criteria included in this TechNote.

STEP 1: Review the Exhibition Proposal in Terms of Preservation Impact

  • How long will objects remain on display?
  • What locations are available for the exhibition and how will each of these locations impact security, lighting, and other conservation issues?
  • Will the exhibit travel?
  • Will collections from other institutions be used?
  • What are the personnel and financial resources available for the design, construction, installation, maintenance and de-installation of the exhibition?
  • Are there any mandates for the exhibit that will affect how the objects are handled or presented? (For example, an historic room setting mandates open display for most objects; special populations may require special contact with collections.)
  • Will the educational intent of the exhibition affect object presentation? (For example, will ethnographic garments be displayed as worn, or can they be displayed supported flat?)
  • Can objects be replicated; can reproductions be used; can objects be rotated or substituted?

STEP 2: Determine Special Needs of Objects

Use the Object Condition and Recommendation Report Form

1-4 Object Condition and Recommendatoin Form image.jpg
  • What are the general conservation needs of the types of objects to be displayed?
  • What is the condition of each particular object?
  • What are the susceptibilities of each object to the causes of deterioration? (For example, physical forces, theft and vandalism, fire, water, pests, contaminants, light radiation, temperature and relative humidity)
  • Can the objects be grouped according to their sensitivity? Are any objects extremely susceptible?
  • How does the actual condition of an object affect its susceptibility to potential harm? (For example, a colored textile in pristine condition may be very susceptible to fading and may require optimum safeguards, while a severely faded textile may not be in much danger of additional fading but will remain vulnerable to physical damages.)

STEP 3: Predict the Exhibit’s Impact on the Objects

  • Does the exhibit area provide enough space for safe display of all of the objects chosen for exhibit?
  • What are the ambient environmental conditions to which the objects will be exposed while on display, and what will be the duration of exposure? What environmental conditions are likely during object transport or for traveling exhibitions?
  • Can the design of the overall exhibit space compensate for inappropriate conditions? Can additions or alterations to the existing HVAC system be made? If so, is sufficient money, time and personnel available?
  • Can case microclimates be used to provide an appropriate environment for sensitive objects? If so, are there resources to design, build, and maintain microclimates within exhibition cases?
  • Is there an appropriate treatment or mounting technique to stabilize the objects for display? If so, is there time, money and a qualified individual to carry out the treatment?

STEP 4: Establish the Conservation Criteria

Use the Conservation Criteria Form
Fig4 Conservation Criteria Form image.jpg
  • What is the level of potential risk to objects from different display conditions?
  • What conditions are recommended for preservation of the objects?
  • Are stringent conservation recommendations necessary for temperature, relative humidity, light levels, pollution control or case design?
  • Are practical and financially feasible methods available to provide the appropriate level of protection?