Full Transcript for the February 2023 Conservation with Nancie Ravenel and Patty Silence.

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Conversations with Change Makers, February 2023

Patricia Silence (Director of Conservation Operations, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia)

Nancie Ravenel (Director of Conservation, The Shelburne Museum, Vermont)


In February of 2023, Patricia Silence, Director of Conservation Operations at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Nancie Ravenel, Director of Conservation at The Shelburne Museum, discussed strategies used in their buildings to reduce energy consumption.

Both institutions have implemented strategies to reduce energy consumption with adjusted/flexible climate setpoints for many years. The strategies have been developed and implemented in consideration of the complexities regarding their environments, building structures, and variety of collections.

00:50 Opening remarks

03:55 Introduction of speakers

06:40 Description of institutions

11:11 Strategies implemented to reduce energy use

17:30 How the idea of reducing energy use evolved?

22:50 Considering risk in implementing strategies

26:50 Involving outside experts in implementing strategies

29:25 Any go-to strategies?

31:40 Intersection with other forms of sustainability initiatives

35:40 Q&A 1. Which window films?

37:25 Q&A 2. Environmental control with loans?

42:40 Q&A 3. What authority can bring more tolerant climate set points?

45:50 Q&A 4. Controlling the humidity. Mold and Ventilation

53:10 Q&A 5. What to consider in planning new buildings?

55:35 Q&A 6. Considering shutdown experiment during/after power outage

57:20 Q&A 7. Adjusting ceiling height to reduce energy consumption

58:35 Q&A 8. Assessment of dimensional changes

59:40 Q&A 9. Advice for starting to implement these changes

1:01:25 Closing remarks

Links in chat during webinar:







*Please note that transcript has been edited for legibility *

(00:50 Opening Remarks)

Roxy: Thank you everyone for joining us. As more people join, I'm just going to do a little introduction here. This is the Conversations with Change Makers series strategies for reducing the energy consumption of buildings. I'm Roxy Sperber. I'm the chair of the AIC Sustainability Committee and this is something that we've put together with the committee. My colleague Amy Crist is also here helping field questions.

This is something that we really felt was missing from the conversation at the moment. There's a lot of conversation around different strategies for reducing energy consumption which is fantastic. Shout out to Caitlin at Ki Culture for putting together an incredible free conference at the end of last year about different strategies for reducing energy consumption and making cultural institutions more sustainable. We've also done an “Ask an Expert” series ourselves which you can find on our Wiki. There's a myriad more people who have been talking about this. I don't want to by any means say that that's an exhaustive list.

It's a really exciting conversation. It's really changing things up, but we wanted to highlight that there are colleagues in the field who have been doing this for many many years and are doing it really well. These strategies are not treading on new territory. There are lots of wonderful colleagues who have already been implementing them. So we really thought it would be useful to have some conversations around that and demystify some of these strategies and help all of you who are interested in helping to implement them - figure out who to talk to and where to go. That's the background.

Housekeeping: Please enter any questions that you have. We do want this to be interactive. There are a lot of you in attendance so we can't unfortunately unmute and all talk but, if you could, throw any questions in the Q&A and feel free to comment on questions or vote things up if you really want those questions answered. We'll do our best to address those. Also, captioning is enabled and we are recording this event. Just a heads up on all of that.

A little bit of preview for what's coming next for this series, we have events in March and April planned. We don't have all the speakers confirmed yet, but the March event will be with colleagues in the UK. This is obviously in collaboration with ICON too. I should say Lorraine Finch has been a collaborative collaborator on this project. That will be featured in March, and then in April we'll be talking to some private conservators. So there's a real interest I think from all of you who work in private conservation Studios to be thinking about what you can do to be more sustainable. We will be talking about that in April. So stay tuned for all of that. This is really intended to lead up to the annual meeting in Jacksonville in May.

(03:55 Introduction of Speakers)

Roxy: Without further ado, let me introduce everyone. As I said, I'm Roxy and I'm the chair of the AIC sustainability committee. Amy, who's joining me, is our resource officer. Our wonderful guests, Nancie Ravenel who works at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, and Patricia Silence or Patty Silence - as she likes to be referred - who is at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia.

A brief introduction: Patty began her career at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as an exhibits conservator in 1999, following her work as a textile conservator at the textile conservation lab in Lowell Massachusetts, and as an objects conservation technician at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Now Patty is the director of conservation operations at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF). Her Department consists of 45 specialist conservators, technicians and aides who work in nine media specific and analytical labs including preventative conservation. Patty works closely with a wide variety of CWF colleagues on construction projects, environmental control systems, fire protection, lighting, and Integrated Pest Management. That sounds busy to me. So thanks for making the time, Patty. She also works with collection colleagues all over the world to practice and promote preventative conservation. Patty is an active professional associate of AIC and currently works with the Materials Working Group. She's also the founding chair of the Green Task Force started in 2008, which is now the AIC Sustainability Committee. We are very indebted to her here on the committee.

Nancy Ravenel received her MS in Art Conservation from the Winterthur Museum/ University of Delaware program as an objects major. She hates to admit it, but this is her 25th year at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, where she is currently the director of conservation. For 17 of those years, she shared an office with Rick Kerschner who appears to be in the audience. Thanks for joining us! Rick is the first conservator hired by the museum and instituted many of the energy saving policies that she's going to describe here. We are indebted to him as well. She learned a lot through osmosis. Her office neighbors include the museum director of preservation and landscape, the buildings preservation team, and facilities technicians. That proximity has been really helpful for building relationships and sharing observations. So that's something we're going to get into today: Talking about how to build a team at your institution to really promote these values and these policies and put all of this into action. Once again, thank you all for joining us and thank you both for being willing to share some of your experience with both of your incredibly busy schedules.

(06:40 Description of Institutions)

Roxy: I think most of us are probably familiar with your respective institutions. I should say we paired these two institutions together because they are larger sort of campus-wide multi-building institutions. I think it would be great if you could each describe your campus: the types of buildings and the collections. I'm going to ping pong back and forth but we'll start with you for this one, Patty, if you could give us a little overview of Colonial Williamsburg.  

Patty: Colonial Williamsburg is on 300 plus acres. We have over 600 structures. The ones that I'm involved with also include over 200 period rooms, as you might call them. We've got 70,000 decorative and folk-art collections, 60 million archaeological pieces, 19,000 architectural fragments. So it's big, it's broad. We also have collections of animals and plants– those kinds of things that come with being a living history museum. Each of our buildings has a range of types of HVAC or not systems - anywhere from chillers and boilers, and big powerful air handlers to home type heat pumps. We only have one exhibit building that is not air-conditioned, though, that we invite the public into. We're in Virginia as Roxy said.

Roxy: Yes, I'm also really keen to get into the climate differences between the institutions that you're talking about. Not having air conditioning in Virginia - that must be an interesting challenge.

Nancy, could you give us a little bit of a description of the Shelburne Museum?

Nancy: Sure. Patty just mentioned they've got 600 buildings at Colonial Williamsburg. We're about a tenth of that size. We've got 66 rooms at Shelburne Museum. Amy, if you want to put up the slide just to show people a little bit from above. This is an image that Rick Kerschner put together just to show the variety of the kinds of systems that we are using. The buildings at Shelburne Museum are a combination of historic structures that were moved to campus, and purpose-built structures which range from barns to buildings with full HVAC systems, to things like a locomotive. The oval-shaped thing there in black is the steamship Ticonderoga which doesn’t have any HVAC systems but does contain collections items, or items that are not necessarily accessioned objects that we want to make sure they stay in decent condition.

The collections themselves are wide ranging from impressionist paintings to American paintings dating from the late 1700s to two years ago. We've got decorative arts, folk arts and textiles, and tools and horse-drawn vehicles and taxidermy. We currently have an IMLS funded inventory of the museum's pharmaceutical collection underway. I would say that some of the structures, like at Colonial Williamsburg, are accessioned collections objects as well.

Just to say a little bit about the systems: Like at Colonial Williamsburg, we've got full HVAC systems to home sized systems, and we use a fair amount of what Rick referred to as “practical climate control”, where the temperature in the buildings is controlled by the humidity level rather than comfort level and thermostat.

(11:11 Strategies implemented to reduce energy use)

Roxy: I think that's actually a really great transition. I think Kelly in her webinar with us, her “Ask an Expert” webinar, when she was at the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) came on and laid out six different energy saving strategies. Everyone should watch that webinar, I'm guessing probably not everybody has them off the top of their head. I would love it if you could talk a little bit about starting a new program. Nancy, since you were talking about this: what are some of your different strategies in the different buildings? I know, with the exhaustive campuses that you're dealing with, you probably won't be able to name them all. But just a few highlights of interesting strategies that you've taken on, or to name a couple that we have talked about. For those who aren't so familiar with: Seasonal drift, if you do have an HVAC systems, microclimates and shutdowns - these different strategies. Some of them make our hearts stop a little bit more as people who work in museums like myself and then others are like “oh yeah, we've been doing that forever.” I'm curious what sorts of strategies you've been implementing at your institutions.

Nancy: Well, certainly seasonal drift and having set seasonal set points is one that we use. Given that we have so many different structures, one thing that we make great use of is making sure that the collections in a specific structure are appropriate to that structure. When the museum first opened to the public in 1947 it didn't have climate control. When Rick started, in his 1992 paper that he published in JAIC, he makes mention that some of the buildings had ranges in relative humidity from 15% to 95%. Those collections are sort of proofed - they've kind of experienced the worst that they can experience. So his strategy was to take off the top and lower edges and bring the relative humidity band that things experience into a much narrower area. Certainly adding passive measures into structures: making sure that the drainage around the building is appropriate and that the basements can be as dry as we can keep them. Adding insulation where we can where it's appropriate. All of them, I think.

Roxy: All of the above! Patty, would you like to …?  

Patty: I would say so. We have everything from these very very old buildings that don't have any insulation and we want to keep them - the structure is as important as or more important than the collections that are inside. Because we do exactly what Nancy said. The only building we have textiles in is one that is interpreted in the 1940s and 50s that the Rockefellers lived in. Otherwise, original textiles just aren't in our historic area. But we, too, are taking the edges off. All of our sites are open to the public all year round. So not heating, or going to 50°F is not an option. We probably look at comfort more than I would like.

In the winter, we've had in-person meetings with all of our staff where I’m saying “It's not going to be warmer than 67°F in your building, so dress accordingly”. That has helped us with the low RH issues that heat offers. But in the summer, we actually are heating to 72°F in a lot of structures that chill to dehumidify that we then reheat. We recognize that we're probably heating more than we want in the summer since it’s energy use, but it's keeping the RH down. And mold is not a sustainable activity in our building. We see very flat line RH all summer long and then in the winter, it pretty much bounces wherever the heck it wants to in the historic area.

We have several buildings that are post 1986 that have these very sophisticated chillers and boilers, the whole nine yards, and that's where we have employed shutdowns. Our collections store area is in a hyper insulated zone in the middle of the building, surrounded by offices and conservation labs. That's where we've been able to shut down the HVAC 14 hours a day. The first year that we did that, which might have been 15 years ago, we saved $16,000  just on that one building.  In that building, the chillers and the boilers for three other very large buildings are incorporated, so we don't shut everything down. This is just air handlers.

Roxy: That's fantastic. 15 years you've been doing this - that's amazing!  

Patty: The other strategy, though, that I wanted to bring up is it's really important to support your facilities people in keeping all of the equipment super well-tuned. I think that saves as much as anything, to really keep an eye on how things are running and not be economical in the way the building runs.

(17:30 How the idea of reducing energy use evolved?)

Roxy: It sounds like these different strategies are tailored very carefully to the different spaces which is fantastic. I'm curious what sort of prompted these conversations to begin with. Nancy, you mentioned this going back to maybe like the 90s. I'd love to hear a little bit about how it all started. I've been in the field for about 10 years and feel like it’s a “new conversation” but it obviously isn't.  This conversation has been going on for some time. It may have started as advocating for more HVAC and more stable conditions, and now we're saying, “Oh wait. The climate crisis is upon us”. So I'm curious how you two see this conversation: Where it started, how it's evolved. If you could speak to that a little bit and if there are lessons in that for us. Let's start with you, Nancy.

Nancy: So for us, I think I've seen conversations around energy usage and the cost of energy usage in our archives dating back to the 1960s. In Vermont, I don't know anyone in Vermont who isn't focused on energy costs frankly. I think there's a wide range of heating and cooling options that are employed domestically in the state. People still heat their homes with wood up here, or pellet stoves.  It was really influenced by fiscal constraints and concerns over how much all this energy is costing. The correspondence that I saw from the 1960s talks about how the museum was building a new building, and they had calculated how much water usage and energy usage this would create.  The town said, “No. That's not sustainable.”. So they had to come up with other ways of heating and controlling light in that building. When Rick Kerschner started the museum was still concerned about how much it all costs, and so obviously you'll see in his writing that there is a lot of focus on costs.

I think now the conversation has pivoted to how we're seeing issues related to climate change: our summers are much warmer than they were when Rick and Ernie Conrad and the other folks who were involved in designing our systems were putting them together. So, we are challenged with our systems operating in a new climate environment and that's where we're shifting to. I think the only thing to add is that the museum also added two solar fields and electrical use is predominantly covered by those solar fields. That has changed the conversation slightly but, I think, we're still awfully concerned about our energy usage and how we run the systems.

Roxy: Patty, what's your answer to that?

Patty: Yes, all the same. I mean, energy use really does reflect in the bills that we have to pay. I will say that CW is big enough that they really pride themselves on doing what's best for the collection. So, I am afraid that some of the arguments for super tight... In the 1980s, we put in systems that right now I regret. I don't think anybody questions that they should be that kind of a system, but they are aging out and every conversation on replacing them does revolve around ‘not too big, not too small, just right’ and then how do we maximize it.

Our conversations about what's best for the collection have had to shift to say, “No, no. You're not doing a poor job if this isn't a super tight system". To our guys credit in the facilities department, and our engineering people, they take it very seriously. It's been an education process to say, “It's okay. We can relax a bit. It doesn't need to be so tight”.  We have a lot of experience with witnessing damage and/or with not witnessing damage. We have our extremes. We know what we can tolerate and what we can't. The collection’s care is important, but also just being able to keep things from getting so complicated that it requires all these specialists, because that's a fiscal issue as well.

(22:50 Considering Risk in Implementing Strategies)

Roxy: That's actually a perfect transition. I think you really hit the nail on the head when you addressed the 1980s and that you regret that. I would love to hear more about why, and also where you go when you assess your risk.  As a younger conservator, I guess I'm kind of mid-career now but, I think to myself - “I don't have the institutional knowledge of decades”. I don't. I get nervous. If I say let's loosen these parameters, how do you know where to start? Are you recording everything? How are you going about having the say, “Okay, actually we can relax. We don't need to be quite so careful.” I'll start with you Patty.

Patty: It does take time. I mean it does. There are benefits to age and experience where you know the sky will not fall. I think [part of the problem] is being taught as conservators that any damage is bad. You really have to start thinking about how change will occur to this object over time. How do we extend that length of time? How do we use it for what it's for, which is education and experience, and understanding our culture and cultures.

I think changing some of those conversations about we're not looking at 700 years. We might be looking at 3. And what's total damage? These are conversations we have. Lights the one, it’s not environment. I think if you really stop and you can witness in your lifetime damage from light, but you might not from environment. Dirt and light are probably more damaging to collections than the environment, generally. You've got these rare extraordinary things and those are the ones you look out for and you learn what they are.

Nancy: I think looking at images from the past is really helpful in assessing what kind of damage or what kind of change has happened over the years. I think, for me, that has put my mind at ease most. Where I get a little nervous is when something new has been acquired and the curator wants to put it in one of the historic houses which has that wide range. I don't really know how that object will respond to that environment and I just watch it really carefully and if something needs to move, it needs to move.  

Patty: That and the recently conserved. If something gets glued up, a wooden thing gets glued up, that's what's gonna pop.  

Nancy: Yes. In fact, in my treatment work I often make my material choices based on the environment. But that also comes with several decades of putting treated objects into environments that are not what we typically think of to put them into, and knowing how those materials will respond.

Roxy: So, do you treat those two examples that you gave, a recently conserved object or a recently acquired object, do you treat those differently? Do you have a more regimented monitoring program or do you tend to put them in different environments? It sounds like you're putting them into the environment they're going to go in and then reacting accordingly, but I'd love to hear a little bit more about that. Nancy you brought that up…

Nancy: I think it's it: I'm just monitoring it a little bit more carefully, and make a point to go check on that thing when I do my rounds collecting data.

(26:50 Involving outside experts in Implementing Strategies)

Roxy: Super. You two are a fountain of knowledge about this, and it sounds like you've learned from really great colleagues as well. I'm curious if you involved any outside experts in terms of doing energy audits. ls that something that's routinely done? There are some wonderful colleagues in the field who I know are experts in this that I've often thought to call on. So, I'm curious if that's part of the implementation of these strategies.

Patty: I think it's really helpful. Outsiders are always listened to a little bit better than insiders, and that brings you these ideas and these thoughts. Getting a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant, or an Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS) grant, is a really great way to get those people in, and that's what we've done. We've also cooperated with IPI on some of their work with libraries. We had a library that met the requirements for one of their projects and so they came and advised us. Kelly, Chris, and Jeremy all came and worked with us on that.

One cautionary tale: At one point, we had an administrator who brought in an energy saving company and, I can say with confidence that, they did more harm than good. They decreed that certain sites should have shutdowns and started just doing things without talking with us. Without understanding conservation, and even without consulting facilities management's expertise. That was not a good project. You really want somebody that is going to listen to you and be open.  

Nancy: I see that Rick Kerschner in the chat made mention of Efficiency Vermont. They have been really helpful to the Shelburne Museum. Not only in providing financial incentives but also advice. Right now we're in conversations with them again about how we might do a better job of tracking our energy usage in various buildings. They've been a wonderful wonderful resource for us to draw on. The difference is that it's a conversation. It's not them coming in and making changes.

(29:25 Any go-to strategies?)

Roxy: Right, that makes a lot of sense. This is probably a question that is going to be dependent on different spaces, but I'm wondering if there's a one go-to strategy that you like over the others. One with which you’re both very happy with the fiscal reduction and with the way that the collections respond. This is going to be tailored probably, so maybe this is a bit of a useless question but I'm curious if there are go-to strategies for your particular institutions.  

Patty: When you put it that way, if you want three arguments for what we want with light reduction— motion detectors, occupancy sensors or drapes over objects or whatever: Less light on an object is good for the object; less light in the room is good for the light bulbs to last longer; and less light in the building uses less energy. That's a super easy example.

Roxy: That's very interesting.

Patty: But in HVAC, it's way more complicated.  

Roxy: Did you have anything else, Nancy, that you wanted to add?

Nancy: I think that, again, being that we're semi-seasonal, we went year-round in just several buildings. Only the buildings that can be open and humidified in the winter. We did that several years ago, but by and large the museum is closed for between mid-October to mid-May. I personally really love that the buildings are given the opportunity, when they can, to go cold because that also helps us with our Integrated Pest Management. We seem to have less pest activity when we've had hard winters. Unfortunately, we're having fewer and fewer of those, but I think that has been my favorite way of reducing costs and having a benefit for the collection.

(31:40 Intersection with other forms of sustainability initiatives)

Roxy: That's a very good point. How integrated all of these things are never ceases to amaze me. Actually, it goes back to another question that I wanted to ask: How does this intersect with other forms of sustainability initiatives that you might have going on? Nancy, you mentioned the solar panel fields and pest management. I'm curious if maybe starting with you, since you had mentioned that, we could talk a little bit about water usage and all these other [factors]. This [conversation] is really focused on energy, but it does seem it's impossible to just talk about one without talking about the others. So, if you could both speak to that, that would be really neat.

Nancy: Well, other initiatives we have going on at the museum are wastewater runoff, and we do have some ground source heat pumps that are used in some of our buildings. We have runoff retention ponds that look like art features in the landscape, but actually have a purpose for our operation. That's the only thing that comes to mind quickly.

Roxy: When you mentioned the solar panels, when we spoke before, you had said that was a company that had come to you.

Nancy: Oh, right. Yes, in fact the solar panels that are on the museum's land— We had 50 acres that we weren't really using. It’s a field that's across some railroad tracks from the museum proper that we had considered using for solar off and on over the years. Then a company came to us and they’re effectively leasing the land. So, it's getting some benefit from something we weren't really using. We get the credits from a portion of the energy that's generated from that solar field and we will have the option of buying those panels at some point at a reduced cost. Again, it's being creative with what assets you have, but I don't know if we would have done that if the company hadn't come to us.

Patty: I guess, the one thing that comes to mind for me is that we have started putting film on our windows. Even on historic glass, and not only is it UV blocking. It's almost clear. It's clear enough that our historic appearance is not affected, but it blocks IR as well. So, in the summertime, although I don't have a way of measuring it, the savings we had … That was an easy thing for us. Virginia doesn't tend to have the state support that Vermont offers for energy savings for various reasons. We have to really look hard at payback periods and all of that with this kind of stuff, but this window film has actually turned out to be a real boon. We definitely see less heat buildup in these spaces and our summers are getting even longer.    

Roxy: That's really interesting.

Patty: The creek that runs through Colonial Williamsburg is chill water runoff.  That is well water. It's also incorporated as a feature but I think that's something that we're going to be curbing over the next few years, because it does require a lot of … When these things are put in, water was cheap and abundant in Virginia and it still is in comparison to the rest of the country, but it's just not the right thing to do.  

(35:40 Q&A 1. Which window films?)

Roxy: Right. We had one follow-up question in the chat here about which window films you're using to reduce IR. Do you happen to know the name off the top of your head?  

Patty: I don't. There were some good articles written about window films several years back in the Western Association for Art Conservation (WAAC) Newsletter. They talked about grayscale and it's very particular to each. I know Winterthur was able to put on a film that was gray because DuPont did it. We have to make it look like it's not there. So there's more to it than just one brand is the best. It's more shopping for what you require and what meets your needs.

Nancy: I think that is the balance of the aesthetic with the benefit to the collection. Because, by and large, our historic buildings are not historic interiors. They're gallery spaces. So we've been able to use tinted interior storms a lot. The view from the outside is that the windows look dark and that's just fine, but increasingly our public is wanting to have the windows opened up so that they can see out and get a sense of where they are in the landscape. So, that's a challenge that I'm also thinking about right now.

(37:25 Q&A 2. Environmental control with loans?)

Roxy:  We have a question. I'm going to turn to the questions because the Q&A is popping off now. Thank you all for throwing questions in the chat. This is something that I actually had on our list of things to talk about: One of the issues that comes up again and again with discussing environmental controls is the issue of loans. The problem in getting loans if you don't prove your environmental controls are extremely tight. Oftentimes as institutions we require tighter controls for loaned objects than we maintain in our own institution. A question for you both is how do you handle loans? Do you only ask for loans in areas that do have tight controls or is this something that you've been able to negotiate with lenders? I think this is going to be a bigger conversation for our entire field but I'm curious, with the experience that you both have, how you've handled that. Now let's start with you, Patty.

Patty: Typically, if we're borrowing something it’s going into our museum building and that was built with lots of insulation. It was built with hardly any windows. It's still a monster, but it is efficient in that category of building. That's generally where loans go. When we are lending, I see a lot of facility reports that, I can tell, have just been written with what they want you to hear and, when you look at the charts, it's different. We do consider whether something is tested or not. I can say we hardly ever refuse a loan even with that, because we also include the argument of what's in it for us: Is it good for us to be seen at this museum? Is it good for us to share with others? Is it good for our collection to get out there and dance in front of other people?  We generally will take those risks and don't consider them to be significant. It's been years since we've even done a micro climate and our curators do not like the idea of glazing paintings, which, I think, serves a lot to help an object in a new and different environment.

Nancy: For us, we also have a specific building where loans typically go into. Specifically from institutions. That building was designed, I think, in 2010 and opened to the public in 2013. The gallery spaces are stacked on top of each other and then the rest of the building does not have the same level of climate control as the gallery spaces. As Patty said, similarly I will look at what kind of environment the requested object is currently in and then see how that lines up with the requester. Oftentimes, if it's coming from a storage area that does not have that high level climate control, then it can basically just go about anywhere.

Roxy: That is really neat, and I feel like it opens up a lot of opportunities in a lot of ways for showing collections. I'm curious if those loan requirements weren't in place, do you think– and maybe this is a bit of a hypothetical that's unfair to ask, but— do you think there would be more of a desire to put objects in less carefully controlled environments, if that was sort of more of an option? Either of you have thoughts?

Patty: I think it's like the buildings. You have to look at each loan, each environment, each object and decide. You have to just include the whole package with that.

Roxy: That's a very sensible answer. Nancy, did you have anything to add to that?  

Nancy: Well, I think it's an interesting conversation specifically when so many institutions who have historic or period rooms are looking at contemporary interventions into those spaces and working with artists, contemporary artists, who are placing their items into a space that doesn't have the typical environment. That, I think, leads to increased conversation. I've never seen an artist turn away because an environment is not like a museum, but we do have the conversation about that. It also leads to what kind of care – those kinds of questions: What they would like to see and how much they can tolerate in terms of a variance.

(42:40 Q&A 3. What authority can bring more tolerant climate set points?)

Roxy: That makes sense. I'm going to turn to a couple more questions.

We have one from James who says “I'm a facilities manager with a background in Children's Museums. The first year with managing a 30,000 square foot collection has been interesting. What authorities could help bring our collections folks be more open to more tolerance on temperature and humidity. I spend a fortune keeping things at 70°F and 50% RH in Virginia year-round.” That's a super great question. I think AIC probably has a big role to play in this which is probably part of why we want to have this conversation. Yes, do either of you have thoughts for James on other authorities that could speak to that? Yourselves perhaps.  

Patty: I am not sure where we are right now with the AIC Wiki on environmental recommendations. There is ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers) that does say these things– That depending on what you've got, [they offer standards on] the kind of building you might want. If you already have equipment that was designed to do that, just getting your internal authorities to approve widening set points doesn't save you energy necessarily. It can make the equipment go kind of bonkers and waste energy, so you have to approach it in an experimental fashion and just check out what you're doing as you're doing it and see what happens.

We've just found that, in some cases, it bounces all over the place because the equipment was designed for temperature control not for RH control and the programming is, as you probably know, is really complicated. I would probably start with some engineers to look at what happens. What do you see as being the way to broaden this with a large building like that? That's probably where I would start: with a contractor or an engineer that understands the programming of the equipment.

Nancy: And including your collections folks in those conversations, too, so that there's transparency and understanding on all levels. I think that’s an ongoing challenge. There's a constant need for education for all staff members about these wider bands and whether or not they're appropriate for a given collection.

Roxy: Yes, those are great points. Thank you. We've also got another point in the chat that the IPI, the Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, New York, has good resources on reducing energy usage. Yes, we would definitely encourage folks to look at their resources. They're amazing. Amy kindly put that right in the chat. Thank you, Amy.

(45:50 Q&A 4. Controlling the humidity. Mold and Ventilation.)

Roxy: I'm going to go to Monica's question: Could you talk a bit more about controlling only the humidity? How has your facilities department been able to do so in newer buildings designed with tall ceilings and so many glass windows?

Patty: We don't do that in newer buildings. You, Nancy?

Nancy: No, most of our newer buildings have no windows, or we've done what we can to block out all light.

Patty: We do have one building, though, the one that doesn't have air conditioning and it was vacant all through COVID. We set up just regular oscillating fans throughout the buildings that were plugged into humidistats. Whenever the humidity went over 50%, I think 45% or 50%, the fans  went and moved the air and that really helped. We had one significant mold outbreak and then we implemented that. That was just empirical. We'd love more work on mold.

Nancy: I agree. I'd love to see more work on mold and just the moving air around. We've got a small collection of horse-drawn vehicles in a barn that has no insulation, no other means of controlling the environment. There's a small difference between the outside environment and what's inside the barn. Rick did put some fans in there and those aren't connected to any kind of humidistat. We just turn them on when the building lights go on and turn them off at night.

There are days when the fans are going even though we're not open to the public. Because the lights and the fans are on the same circuits, we're exposing those collection pieces to light that they wouldn't get normally. When you're weighing the potential of fading versus the potential of mold growth, I'll take the fading over the mold for that particular collection. It's amazing that we really don't see mold in that building even though the relative humidity in that building can be over 90% in summertime. So, I would love to see more work on the effect of ventilation.

In Rick's paper that he did for the Getty Conservation Institute in 2007 as part of their Experts Roundtable, he goes into some detail about a storage area that has heat and ventilation to control the relative humidity and how that operates. [This includes] louvers opening and closing. We do have some oscillating fans in that space just to encourage air movement. And because of climate change, we've had to add a room size dehumidifier that's plumbed to the outside and goes on and off because it's got a humidistat in there. It's amazing how that one room size dehumidifier takes off the very highs that we have in that space.

Roxy: That's fascinating. I love … I'm a fan of a fan in my own house. So intrigued by that concept of increasing ventilation. We have a comment from an engineer in attendance. Thank you, Nicola. She says, “Engineer here. We have reduced our energy consumption dramatically without changing set points. Understanding the control algorithms is very useful” to Patty's point. “If you can find a contractor who will help you with this, it can also be valuable. Engineers like to talk in jargon, so don't be afraid to challenge this and ask for clear explanations.” I can appreciate that. Thank you for chiming in to help with that previous question.

We've got another anonymous attendee who is asking, “What would you advise smaller museums to do if they're struggling to meet recommended RH bands, but are nervous to stop trying. It would be great if the larger organizations could publish their experience in trying wider RH targets.” I think there are some publications on this, for sure, out there. Are there any particular ones that you would point this attendee to or any particular bits of wisdom that you could share on that point? We perhaps need to put together a group of publications that would talk about this. That might be something that we could do as the committee to share a little bit. I think personally, I hope that smaller institutions will be able to benefit from some of these conversations. I know some colleagues who work more in the regional sphere and talk to a lot of smaller museums have reported that there's a lot of stress and anxiety that goes into meeting these really really tight set points. As we're having this conversation and others, I think, it's quite clear that, as Patty mentioned earlier, perhaps light is an important thing to target as well and that might be more feasible.

Patty: One of the things that's helped me is talking to my engineers and facilities managers… they were worried about humidifying more in the winter and I've really gotten them to be okay with this. In some cases, we don't even turn on our humidifiers except for maybe one month in the winter. It takes so long to dry a structure out. So, we stay at that 55% RH all summer long, really flat, and then we wait until we see that it's starting to bump into the 30s% and then we might start, two weeks later, to turn on the humidifier. But we're turning our humidifying boilers, the steam boilers, off completely in buildings for the summer because I realized that it was trying to tweak it. It might go down to 45%. [Asking] why are we running this whole boiler just in case we need that little tiny bit…telling them it's okay to dip down to 35% and it'll come right back. Outside in Virginia, we still see 100% humidity daily. There are no two ways about it … and we're not getting that cold hardly.

Roxy: That's great advice, thank you for sharing that. Leanne says, “Thank you Patty for mentioning the relevance of what the equipment was made to handle.” That's important for me too. I didn't realize thinking about that is such an essential bit of this.

(53:10 Q&A 5. What to consider in planning new buildings?)

Roxy: We have another question from an anonymous attendee regarding new buildings: “Have either of you been involved in discussions when buildings were being planned? What should be considered in regards to collection spaces and galleries and energy consumptions other than no windows?” If we were starting from scratch what would we say?

Patty: I've been involved with several new buildings. First of all, that's a really great thing in our field to be invited. The biggest thing that, I feel, I can do for my colleagues, including my vice president, is that I am not afraid to ask the dumbest questions at the meetings: please explain this to me. I don't understand it. You will realize that three quarters of the room doesn't understand and they're very happy for you to be that person that will bridge that divide. It is about learning the language of the people that you're working with. Also the engineers that are coming in from outside and working with you to design this, they hear a number and they're going to give it to you. They are not looking at ranges, flexi bands. They are coming in assuming that you're asking for a number and that's what you want. It's a conversation that has to continue. You might say, “What if I told you that 40°F was okay but I don't want it at 40°F all the time? I need that little extra oomph every so often, so we average through the year.” Those kinds of conversations give them a better vision of what you're looking for. They would love it if you just say “50 and 72” and they'll do their darndest to give it to you, and you want to say, “Does that cost 10 or does that cost 6?” and “How do we get closer to the 6 and still stay within?”.

Roxy: Fantastic. We're getting close on time here. I'm just going to throw a few more questions at you. A lot of these comments are really helpful. Folks writing in from Arizona laughing about 100% humidity.

(55:35 Q&A 6. Considering shutdown experiment during/after power outage)

Roxy: We have a question from a museum conservator in Northern Norway: “What can I do if our ventilation system is being replaced and will be turned off in the galleries for a month? Do we need to put in place dehumidifiers?” Or is this an opportunity for a shutdown experiment, I suppose. Maybe just monitoring quite closely and watching it? You could read a little bit about shutdowns perhaps. Not to answer the question, sorry … Do either of you have anything else to add please?

Patty: Our best shutdown experiments are always when we lose power. We've lost power for a week and we've learned that we can hold our RH in our storage spaces for a week in the winter without any energy input at all. All of those things are the things that you show to your facilities guys to say this is okay. In fact, if one piece of equipment breaks, we no longer leave the air handlers running to move the air because that just blows everything right out of the water. Everybody knows you shut the building, you keep it closed and don't let anybody in or out and you turn everything off. Shut down experiments! I'm really glad you brought that up.

Roxy: We should all be thinking about making good use of other life events, like having to shut things down - but that's great.

Patty: Dehumidifiers, especially if they're not plumbed as Nancy said, to plumbing that goes to a drain or to the outside can cause more harm than good because they often fail and overfill.

(57:20 Q&A 7. Adjusting ceiling height to reduce energy consumption.)

Roxy: That's good to know. Be aware. Touching on the topics of fans, “I'm a facilities person at a relatively modern museum in the upper Midwest with rooms that are overly large and high ceilinged for our current use plan. Do you have any advice on reducing ceiling height or modifying overly large spaces with installed fans to reduce energy needs?”   I know that either of your spaces would really have spoken to that but …

Nancy: I don't think that we've done any sort of real study on the fans in the Round Barn. Certainly I don't know how tall that structure is but it's several stories high. It's a very large space and I know Rick worked with an engineer to calculate how much air movement was necessary to do the installation and then tested it out.

Patty: We find that de-stratifying air in tall spaces is very useful. You want it to be homogenized. We use the stack effect to its advantage, and then we try to reduce it when it's not an advantage. I think that fans are great.

(58:35 Q&A 8. Assessment of dimensional changes)

Roxy: Super. We've got time for one or two more. We have a question, which I think is very interesting, from Eric: “Have you tried to measure dimensional changes or material movement on complex objects? Or are you relying on visual observations to indicate whether there's change in objects?” How do both of you approach this? I know you both have insanely large collections for the number of personnel. What would be your advice for Eric on that front?

Patty: We're using visual. We're measuring cracks, but that's mostly because of the facilities that we have. We have used crack monitors to see things move but we're not doing any controlled experiments or any of that within our labs.

Roxy: Big undertaking. Nancy, did you have anything further to add?

Nancy: No…

Patty: There have been some really good papers written on that, though, that I've seen where people are doing that.

(59:40 Q&A 9. Advice for starting to implement these changes)

Roxy: There are a couple other things. Lorraine is chiming in: the AIC PMG meeting on Friday,  which I think you can still join virtually. There's going to be a presentation on a building that’s environmentally sensitive at SF MOMA which is a pre-recorded presentation. That should have some discussions of reducing energy in a new building and how energy could be saved. Please tune in. A couple of us, Lori and I, are both presenting on sustainability there too.

I think one last question to wrap it up and then we'll be right at time. “What is your advice for people who are wanting to start to implement these changes?” Is there any kind of one bit of wisdom or guidance that you would give? Let's start with you Nancy.

Nancy: I think get to know your facilities people, get to know them as people, and understand where their challenges are before you get into a conversation about making any changes. I think that's the most important thing.

Roxy: That's a great bit of advice. Patty, do you have anything to add?

Patty: I think Nancy hit it right on. If you look at the IPI resources, one of the first things they do is list who should be present. You also want an administrator too, the money person, the guy that pays the bills to be there so that they understand what you're after. All the deciders should be there and speak with one voice by the end of your conversations.

(1:01:25 Closing Remarks)

Roxy: That's a great bit of advice. I need to take that and take that to heart. I think there's still a lot of stuff in the chat. Feel free to peruse, everyone, but I think we will wrap it up since it has definitely been an hour and we don't want to take any more of our generous speakers' time. Thank you all for attending. Thanks for the wonderful questions. We will keep this conversation going in a lot of different forms. Those of you who are in attendance today, please do attend the other events as well and keep those fantastic questions coming. Thanks again Nancy and Patty for your time and thanks to AIC for hosting this. Take care everyone.

Have more questions?

Contact the Speakers

  • Patricia Silence, psilence@cwf.org
  • Nancie Ravenel, nravenel@shelburnemuseum.org