When making the preliminary selection of exhibit objects, exhibit planners take into account the objects’ ability to withstand the rigors of display
Exhibit object selection is generally based on the curatorial, educational and aesthetic objectives of the exhibit. However, for conservation to succeed, object selection must also be partly determined by an object’s vulnerability to damage and the exhibit project’s ability to provide the appropriate protection. Some objects may be irreplaceable or too sensitive to be displayed without extensive conservation treatment and complex safeguards to protect them from exhibit hazards.
When the preliminary selection is made, the curator and other exhibit team members responsible for object selection should consider whether an object is robust enough to be displayed, given its current condition, the environmental conditions in the exhibit location, and the demands of the exhibit plan.
As an alternative to permanent display of extremely fragile objects, the exhibit team could consider rotating objects off exhibit, substituting alternate objects from the collection, or using reproductions. Those selecting objects for exhibit should also consider whether an object could itself pose a conservation risk to other objects and whether it will be possible to provide the necessary safeguards.
By including these concerns in object selection, exhibit planners can avoid the expensive treatments and conservation safeguards that may be required for the most vulnerable objects.
Ultimately, the exhibit team will need the conservator’s expertise to determine which objects are too unstable for display or will require safeguards that are too costly. However, it will help to smooth the process if the preliminary object selection is made with object conservation in mind.
What characteristics make an object vulnerable to the hazards of exhibit and possibly unsuitable for display?
- Certain objects are particularly susceptible to the main agents of deterioration and loss (theft, physical damage, fire, water, humidity, temperature, light, contaminants, pests, dissociation) and stringent safeguards may be necessary to exhibit them without damage. Such objects include:
- • Objects with high significance or value: this could put them at risk of theft (see Guideline 5.2)
- • Objects having an inherent fragility: this puts the object at risk from physical damage; for example, a delicate Roman glass cosmetics container.
- • Objects composed of materials that are especially vulnerable to environmental conditions: Certain materials are particularly susceptible to environmental conditions, such as fluctuating humidity and temperature, and can deteriorate if these are not carefully controlled. Such highly vulnerable materials include organic materials such as feathers, textiles and art on paper. The colorants found in objects and decorative materials can also be very unstable when exposed to light.
- Moderately vulnerable materials include paintings, wooden objects, bone, leather and most metal objects; the least vulnerable include stone, porcelain, etc.
- • The object is not in stable condition or cannot be adequately stabilized before exhibit. An unstable object (with corroding metal, 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.
- • At least one of the materials from which the object is composed is unstable. Objects are often composed of several different materials. In this case, an object should be judged on the basis of its most vulnerable component. For example, a stone statuette is relatively stable. However, if it has painted elements, its vulnerability should be rated on the basis of these much more vulnerable features.
- • The object’s appearance does not meet the aesthetic requirements of the exhibit. Incomplete, deteriorated, or dirty objects may require extensive treatment in preparation for exhibition; such treatment and expense may not be warranted or possible given the project’s budget and human resources.
- • The object presents signs of hazardous biological activity. Objects showing signs of active pest infestation and mold could contaminate other objects in the exhibit. Objects most at risk of biological infestation are organic objects and objects with organic components (for example, a sword with a leather scabbard, or a knife with a wooden handle). If signs of infestation are found, advise the museum staff or consult a conservator about treatment options.
- • The object could pose a health hazard to museum staff and visitors. Geologic collections can contain radioactive materials. Organic objects, in particular natural history collections, may have been treated with biocides. These substances can usually be identified through testing.
- • The object is composed of materials that could pose a hazard to other objects. Modern collections can include plastics and other synthetic materials. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in these synthetics often outgas. VOCs can build up to harmful levels in an enclosed space such as an exhibit case and could react with neighboring exhibit materials.
How do the Exhibit Plan and Exhibit Location affect object selection?
- Both the exhibit plan and the exhibit location help determine what conditions objects will be exposed to while on display. Those features of the plan and location that could affect exhibit objects should therefore be taken into account during object selection. Factors to consider include the following:
- • Duration of the exhibit: The longer the exhibit, the greater the potential for vulnerable objects to be exposed to the agents of deterioration.
- • The expected audience and attendance numbers: Fragile objects may be at greater risk if large crowds are expected. School children represent a particular set of threats. For example, children attending in large numbers can create more physical vibration by shaking and bumping exhibit cases and increase the potential for vandalism.
- • Probability of travel: Traveling exhibits increase the risks to objects, 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 multi-venue exhibit.
- • Environmental conditions in the exhibit location: An exhibit area with no climate controls, large windows, or cramped space will require extensive hazard mitigation if vulnerable objects are selected for display.
- (See Standard 7 for information on hazards within the exhibit location)
- • The extent of open display: Objects that are on open display are much more susceptible to the agents of deterioration. Exhibit enclosures can provide essential protection to vulnerable objects.
- • Size of exhibit space: The number of objects selected must be appropriate for the available exhibit space. A common problem is underestimating the amount of room required for safe display. Overcrowding in an exhibit makes object installation and retrieval potentially damaging.
How do Exhibit Resources affect object selection?
- • Ability to provide safeguards: The resources available to provide safeguards such as physical security, climate controls, well-sealed cases, appropriately designed and padded mounts and modified lighting should help determine how many vulnerable objects can be put on display.
- • Ability to provide necessary conservation treatment: Conservation treatment can be expensive ($75-$125 per hour as of 2010). It can also be time-consuming; the time required to complete complex treatment may run beyond the exhibit opening date.
What assistance can a conservator provide in selecting appropriate objects for exhibit?
- An exhibit conservator can help the exhibit team take potential conservation challenges into account during object selection. A conservator can:
- • Establish an object’s vulnerability. During the last decade, conservation science research has helped conservators identify distinct categories of vulnerability within collections, and objects can be assigned a vulnerability rating to be used in the selection process. For example, a conservator might categorize a 17th century embroidery sampler as “extremely vulnerable”, suggesting “a limited exhibit duration of six months every five years.”
- • Establish an object’s stability. A conservator can also establish whether an object is in stable enough condition to exhibit at all (with or without treatment) and the ramifications of exhibiting it.
- • Factor in the effect of exhibit conditions. A conservator can advise on what objects are appropriate for display given the particular exhibit environment and exhibit plan.
Why should the exhibit team be prepared to modify the list of selected objects?
- • The initial object selection should be viewed as a preliminary choice. Once an object has been assessed by the conservator, it may become apparent that the object is too weak or vulnerable to be safely displayed. The conservator’s assessment of the exhibit location may identify further risks to an object. For example, the relative humidity may undergo extreme fluctuations that will be damaging unless climate control can be provided. Therefore, as such information becomes available, the exhibit team should be ready to modify the list of selected objects or mitigate the risk.