Exhibition Standards & Guidelines
The content on this page is drawn from two separate but related projects:
- The Exhibit Conservation Guidelines, which was originally published as a CD-ROM in 1999 by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) - Harpers Ferry Center (HFC) - Division of Conservation and developed by Toby Raphael, Nancy Davis and Kevin Brookes. View additional publication credits here.
- The Conservation Standards & Guidelines for Exhibitions Utilizing Museum Collections, previously unpublished, was written and developed by the late Toby Raphael, Fellow AIC, Conservation Advisor to the Board of the National Association for Museum Exhibitions and Felicity Devlin, Museum Consultant. The work was funded, in part, by a FAIC Samuel H. Kress Conservation Publication Fellowship.
These two products complement each other and have been combined here to encourage collaborative editing and comments; the NPS and American Institute for Conservation (AIC) 2018 memorandum of understanding created an opportunity for joint work towards presenting an updated resource to meet the needs of the cultural heritage community. Text may have been adapted or revised in its transfer from its original format to the wiki.
Two groups comprised of individuals with exhibition, conservation, conservation science, preservation and collection management backgrounds are collaborating on editing and updating these texts. The content presented here should be seen as a work in progress as updates proceed.
- The AIC-NPS Exhibit Guidelines Working Group is comprised of NPS staff and other volunteers with knowledge of the Exhibit Conservation Guidelines content
- Members of AIC's Materials Standards and Specifications Working Group are also working on developing portions of this content that relate to their broader mission of facilitating the choice of appropriate materials for exhibition, storage and transport
For more information on how to get involved with either group please contact AIC's e-Editor
Exhibition design that incorporates conservation early in planning can provide a protective environment for objects and appropriate conservation solutions that do not compromise aesthetics.
About these Guidelines
Exhibition and preservation are central to museums. The very act of exhibition; however, can set in motion the rapid deterioration of museum objects. Exhibit conservation, the subject of these guidelines, focuses on practical techniques that protect museum collections while on display.
These guidelines make the case for early and active involvement of a conservator in the exhibit process. Exhibit conservators have a body of information to share with designers and other exhibit specialists to ensure a preservation-responsible approach to design. An exhibit conservator begins by articulating the criteria for safe display of the objects chosen. These conservation criteria allow the exhibit team into integrate conservation in exhibit planning, design, and production.
Experience shows that a successful product demands a close, constructive working relationship between qualified exhibit and conservation specialists as well as a sense of responsibility among team members for collections preservation. These guidelines present a variety of techniques that the exhibit team can use in working together to fulfill critical conservation criteria. Enclosing sensitive objects inside well-designed exhibit cases is a practical approach to object preservation, so considerable technical information on exhibit case design and fabrication is included.
As originally conceived and written in 1999, these guidelines were primarily concerned with interpretive exhibits of three-dimensional objects (such as those from history, anthropology, natural science, and archival collections). Their content is currently being updated and expanded beyond the project's original focus to include more recent scholarship and additional collecting categories. Although these guidelines remain useful in the preparation of many kinds of exhibits, additional information can be found in the following AIC wikis:
The Books and Paper Specialty Group for information on the Exhibition, Supports, and Transport of printed materials.
The Paintings Specialty Group for information on Backing Boards.
The Photographic Materials Specialty group for Exhibition Guidelines for Photographic Materials.
The Textiles Specialty Group for information on the Exhibition and Storage of textiles.
Using This Resource
The Exhibit Conservation Guidelines is a tool and technical resource for preservation-responsible exhibit design. It does not attempt to provide definitive standards, but identifies general conservation guidelines for the safe display of objects and provides enough information to allow creative solutions for meeting the conservation criteria established for a specific exhibit.
Although each exhibit situation is different, working within these guidelines will protect the objects on display from deterioration and damage. While the information focuses on stationary exhibits, it also applies to traveling exhibits. Likewise, the handbook can be helpful in retrofitting existing exhibits.
Exhibit planners, curators, designers, and fabricators will find these guidelines helpful. Certainly, any exhibit involving collections will benefit from the full involvement of a conservator, and many situations require it.
Institutions are urged to use their own conservation staff or consult with a private conservator or regional conservation facility with experience in exhibit conservation.
The Guidelines have five parts. Hyperlinks in the written narrative reference the general discussion to the pertinent Exhibit Technical Notes and Case Details and Illustrations.
This part has five sections which outlines the basic knowledge needed to produce a preservation-responsible exhibit. It provides a framework for including conservation in the exhibit development and production process. Each topic is preceded by a list of Conservation Guidelines that summarize critical considerations and recommendations.
Integrating conservation concerns into exhibit planning. Use this section to:
- Clarify the steps of the exhibit planning process
- Identify overall preservation objectives for the exhibit
- Identify the specific risks of exhibition to the collections
- Understand the diverse team members' conservation role
- Allocate the needed time and financial resource for conservation
- Include a conservator during the selection of objects
- Set conservation criteria required for the objects' preservation
- List the special constraints and requirements
Overall design strategies and understanding the exhibit environment. Use this section to:
- Familiarize the exhibit team members with basic conservation strategies and options
- Assess the proposed exhibit space and projected environment for preservation impact
- Select the appropriate exhibit format—either open display or the use of enclosed exhibit cases
- Identify the pros and cons of employing strategies at the room vs. exhibit case level
- Select the appropriate level response to meet specific object conservation criteria
- Design environmental control at the most practical and efficient location
- Perform a risk assessment and select the appropriate design for physical security, stability and access
Designing a conservation-grade case and providing a protective microclimate. Use this section to:
- Understand the potential benefits and requirements of conservation-grade cases
- Detail case entry, object access requirements
- Evaluate the case's need for micro-environmental features
- Select an appropriate level of case seal and ventilation for the circumstances
- Systematically design the case to meet the specific conservation criteria
- Engineer cases to achieve appropriate physical security and stability
Producing a preservation-responsible exhibit. Use this section to:
- Specify conservation safe materials; protect objects from less stable materials
- Allow sufficient time for testing of new materials, experimental case designs and lighting
- Familiarize the team with the need for inspections and testing during production
- Design and fabricate exhibit mounts that support and protect display objects
- Prepare selected objects for display; provide conservation treatment for objects when necessary
Producing and installing a preservation-responsible exhibit. Use this section to:
- Plan a well-organized and safe exhibit installation including proper collections care
- Recognize the value of systematic maintenance and prepare a thorough maintenance plan
The TechNotes are a series of technical summaries that provide the detailed information required to implement many of the conservation guidelines. Examples of commercially available products are given to illustrate materials that meet conservation requirements.
Mention of a product, manufacturer, or supplier by name in this publication does not constitute an endorsement of that product or supplier by the National Park Service. It is suggested that readers also seek alternate product and vendor information to assess the full range of available supplies and equipment.
The technical illustrations of exhibit case details provide drawings that demonstrate how to build conservation features into exhibit casework. These drawings are of actual exhibit cases which have been fabricated and proven effective. They demonstrate many important fabrication tips.
Forms and Checklists
- Conservation and the Exhibit Process
- Checklist for Conservation Involvement
- Contributions of Team Members to Preservation
- Conservation Criteria Form
- Exhibit Area Preservation Features and Control
- Exhibit Case Preservation Features and Control
- Checklist for the Exhibit Planner
- Exhibit Object Condition and Recommendation Form
- Exhibit Object Rotation or Substitution Report Form
- Exhibit Maintenance Tasks and Schedule
- Temperature and Relative Humidity Monitoring Options
- Exhibit Pest Incident Report Form
- Exhibit Lighting Relamping Schedule Form
The NPS Exhibit Conservation Guideline CD-ROM included a lengthy bibliography that, while still useful, requires substantial updating to include publications since 1999. The original list is available here.