Guideline 13.2

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Guideline 13.2: All unknown and problematic materials are vetted or tested for stability before they are used in exhibit construction and fabrication

Why is it important to research and test unknown materials before they are used in exhibit construction?

It is recommended that designers choose from the “best choice” list of materials and avoid those known to offgas or create other hazards. If a new and unknown material is being considered for exhibit construction, it must be systematically reviewed to ensure that it will not introduce pollutants into the environment.

What materials fall into the “unknown” category?

  • Materials that do not appear on the list of products or materials researched by large conservation facilities such as the Canadian Conservation Institute, The Getty Conservation Institute, or the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute. Many institutions publish a list of products and materials they’ve researched. Through the use of such lists, many materials can either be approved for use or eliminated from consideration without the need for further research or testing.
  • Materials of unknown or questionable composition, and those products for which the manufacturer will not provide a list of contents.
  • Commercial products whose composition has been changed by the manufacturer and which therefore may be no longer acceptable. Note: the composition of a product can vary from batch to batch and it is therefore the safest option to test each batch of a product whenever possible.
  • Dyes and any finishes applied to a textile should be checked for dye stability and fastness.

How can unknown materials be researched to ensure that they will not introduce pollutants or contaminants?

If a material or product falls into the “unknown category,” take the following steps to determine whether it is hazardous to exhibit objects:

Step 1: Consult an appropriate source to establish which chemical components are present in the product being considered:

Review the material safety data sheet (MSDS), which lists the product’s basic components
Review the manufacturer’s product literature, which will identify base materials and the manufacturing process
Consult the manufacturer’s technical staff in their research and development department.

Step 2: Once the material components have been identified, check them against a list of approved materials (exhibit materials that have been previously tested and accepted).

Consult the lists of materials that have been researched and published by large conservation facilities.

Step 3: When the product’s component materials are not listed, it is advisable to test the product to ensure it will not pose a hazard to exhibit objects:

Arrange for testing by an analytical testing firm.
Arrange to have testing done by a qualified conservation laboratory.
See options below.

What options are available to have materials tested?

A range of options is available for testing materials:

  • Many of the larger conservation facilities conduct materials testing.
  • Some smaller conservation laboratories may also be able to perform testing for local museums.
  • Conservation laboratories in museums sometimes provide testing services as part of their outreach program.
  • Commercial firms specializing in chemical analysis also provide testing services for a fee. Commercial testing services usually require the client to request a specific analytical method and generally require several weeks per test; costs range from 100 to 500 dollars depending on the nature of the test.
  • The Oddy Test is a relatively simple and inexpensive test used by conservation facilities. It demonstrates the affect a material has upon lead and metallic coupons and thus identifies its potential for corrosive out-gassing. It does require a commitment to scientific precision and relies upon a somewhat subjective visual inspection to determine results, but could be conducted by a museum without elaborate scientific equipment.
  • Museum staff can test fabrics for color-fastness. Test textiles for water-fastness by blotting wet sample swatches on white toweling—use at least two samples and soak one for 1 minute and the second for 5 minutes in water. If the dye is not water-fast, it may be possible to make the fabric acceptable for use by washing it repeatedly until the water runs clear.

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