Let's be Honest

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation, V&A Museum
London, UK

Talk presented at the IIC conference, "Preventive Conservation: Practice, Theory and Research". Ottawa, Canada September 15th 1994

This talk is considerably different to that published in the preprints of the Conference, available from IIC, 6 Buckingham street, London,WC2N

This talk is about people rather than objects. People are more difficult to deal with, but we should never lose sight of the fact that we conserve objects for the benefit of people.

I would like to make some comments about the way that people behave when they borrow or lend objects for temporary exhibitions. I would like to examine the way that they discuss the provision of an appropriate environment for moisture-sensitive objects and ask "are tightly specified environmental parameters helpful

and if not "why do they sometimes assume such a dominant position in loan negotiations?".

It is my observation that borrowers and lenders frequently do not "tell it like it is".

At best they are deliberately lying to achieve their ambitions or, at worst they have no idea what they are talking about.

As I don't think that Museum professionals should be dealing in "inexactitudes" I have made the plea "lets be honest"

    Slides 1
    (mostly text, left in English, Right in French)


I must begin with an apology for my poor French, but I will blame the computer. As you will see later the computer finally rebelled and refused to display any language but English.

    [Slides 2

    Pictures of V&A Museum
    Icon from "Gates of Mystery" Exhibition]

I started to prepare ideas for this paper about eighteen months ago. At that time the V&A (pictured on your left) was about to receive a loan containing a large number of icons, paintings on wooden panel, (pictured on your right) on their way back to Russia from the United States. The organisers of this touring exhibition asked us to achieve environmental conditions of 51% plus or minus one percent relative humidity and a temperature of 69° plus or minus one degree F. Such a specification is not merely tight, it is meaningless. The equipment routinely used to measure and control humidity does not recognise such a small quantity as 1%. Consistent control to 1°F is not achievable in a building of the age and construction of the V&A, or indeed is unlikely to have been achieved in the transatlantic flight on the way to the V&A.

Being honest, the V&A declared what ranges of relative humidity and temperature it could achieve, but guaranteed this for no more than 95% of the duration of the exhibition. In this case the demonstration of honesty did us no harm and we secured the loan.

    [Slides 3

    Pictures of Nick Umney,
    David Ford]

Throughout the exhibition, in addition to our routine environmental monitoring, my colleagues Nick umney and David Ford, (co-authors of the pre-print) conducted an experiment to show how the icons might be reacting to the conditions that we actually did subject them to. The owners of the objects, rather than the organisers of the exhibition tour, had originally given broad guidance about the constancy of the moisture content of the panels. An attempt was made to measure changes in the moisture content and physical dimensions of a mock icon and relate these to fluctuations in the environment. Details are given in the pre-prints. The measurements showed that dimensional changes in the panel were always very small and not directly relatable to changes in the immediate environment. Quite large variations such as a drop of 10% rh over 2 days were not "perceived" by the panel. So what you see here is an expensive and highly insensitive environmental monitor which does what we always dream of, it shows a nice straight line. But the point is, why do we get excited if a bunch of hairs move in a thermohygrograph, when the objects we are concerned about are too thick to notice the change?

Although the V&A demonstrably failed to meet the impossible environmental demands of the organisers, the icons themselves did not appear to mind and no visible change could be detected in their condition at the end of the exhibition.

    [Slides 4

    Pictures of Chairman of Board of Trustees
    Director of V&A]

I show you these photographs for three reasons.

First, the people shown are British. It is my intention to insult the integrity of at least two other nations so I thought I ought to declare that the British, especially the English, have a long and respected history of deceit and double-dealing.

Secondly these are people of high status who wield political power. As such they stand as symbols for the fact that in negotiating an international loan there may be political factors that transcend the art historical significance of an object or its physical stability.

Thirdly, in their own separate ways these two people helped me to develop the theme of this paper.

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster is the Chairman of the board of Trustees of the V&A and some years ago he achieved international fame during the Spycatcher fiasco for his use of the expression "economical with the truth"

Elizabeth Esteve-Coll is Director of the V&A and two years ago attended a conference at which she met a number of senior conservators from around the world. The V&A had just been refused a loan of photographs from the United States because we could not guarantee to meet the requirements of the exhibition co-ordinators, even though we could easily meet American standards for the environmental care of photographs. She asked these conservators how they would have avoided such a situation. They advised her that they would have been ... cautious in reporting the truth of the situation. On another occasion during the negotiation of a large loan from the British Royal

Collection, V&A conservators were openly communicating with their conservation colleagues in the Royal Collection about our environmental capability. In this instance the show of honesty was jeopardising the loan and the Director warned me that my staff should be more" mature". That is they should learn to be "economical with the truth".

    [Slides 5

    Why lie?]

What are the motivations for lying? Is it necessary?

Firstly an institution may, for political reasons, misrepresent conservation views on the physical stability and environmental requirements of an object in order

to deny the request for a loan. In these circumstances the proposed relaxation of environmental parameters would not be deemed helpful.

Lenders may stipulate strict environmental requirements to suggest that they keep their collections in ideal conditions. The borrower will promise to adhere to an impossible specification encouraging the lender with the illusion that " We will be looking after your objects with the same great care that we look after our own". Thus both sides can preserve the illusion and neither side can be accused of negligence.

The maintenance of illusion can become a matter of national pride. Fifteen years ago curators from the Kremlin Museum in Moscow dogmatically assured me that conditions were ideal because the cold Russian winters did not produce low indoor relative humidities.

The last and most frequent reason for lying is in order to obtain the loan. Any conditions asked for by the lender will of course be achieved by the borrower. There may also be a matter of pride here. Just as no man will ever admit that he drives badly or makes love disappointingly, so no museum will admit that its air-conditioning does not meet the macho ideal. In countries whose major export is technology, such as Japan or the United States, an admission of technological impotence is unthinkable.

The lender may just be gullible and believe the optimistic facilities report. Or the lender may be equally keen to see the exhibition happen and turn a blind eye to the hopelessly exaggerated claims of prowess.

    [Slides 6

    Japanese Exhibition spaces]

An example of this sort of gamesmanship can be seen in the current series of travelling exhibitions being sent from the V&A to a variety of venues in Japan. A wide range of object types has been sent including moisture-reactive and dimensionally unstable media such as wood and canvas. Furniture and some large paintings have been displayed uncased.

This is the game. The lenders (the V&A) specify a reasonable band of admissible humidities, 40-60%, and the borrowers, Japanese department stores, say "Shinpai nai this is not a problem, we have full air-conditioning" and they show records to prove it. While setting up the exhibition the courier remarks that the humidity is in the low thirties.

    [Slides 7

    Humidifiers belching out steam and leaking water]

The borrowers quickly whisk out humidifiers (kept purely for emergencies) and the humidity struggles up to a point where at least one monitor records 40%. The exhibition opens, the courier goes home, the humidifiers are put away, the humidity drifts down, the next exhibition tour is planned and the next loan fee is negotiated.

BUT... at the end of the tour, after very careful condition checks, no permanent change that can be attributed to the environment is detected in any of the objects.

So this is a game where both sides can win and nobody gets hurt.

    [Slides 8

    What are the conditions?]

We specify conditions and try to measure them, but what are the real conditions?

Because both borrower and lender are under an obligation to maintain their side of the bargain or maintain their part of the illusion, it suddenly seems very important to know exactly the levels of temperature and humidity in every space and at every moment of the night and day. Modern cheap electronic technology has made this tidal wave of information possible, ensuring that one condition that can be guaranteed is panic. But there is a man, and it is always a man, who is immune to panic. This is the engineer, the person responsible for the practical provision of the environment by mechanical means. We should pay heed to the engineer's tale.

    [Slides 9

    Electronic monitors ( Vaisala and Meaco )]

Here are samples of the lashes with which the ignorant scourge themselves and bully the innocent. In addition to the ubiquitous ACR logger we have the hand held monitor that claims to read humidity to one place of decimals. That last figure never quite settles down. God, what an unstable environment we've got! Panic! Get the other monitor. Oh God, that one reads 5% higher! No one will ever lend to us again!

When calibrated, these monitors are accurate to plus or minus 3%. So the two on the right, although they display different readings for humidity, are saying the same thing, they're saying "don't worry, be happy, the humidity is probably somewhere between 51 and 58%. That's pretty much in the right region isn't it?"

These monitors will store the maximum value for temperature or humidity. To set them you have to manipulate them close to your face like a Gameboy computer. The most frequently recorded maxima are 90% RH and blood temperature.

    [Slides 10

    Graphical output of dataloggers]

Cheap PC technology allows you to design a graph to suit your own personality.

If you want to create panic you allow the software to automatically scale the vertical axis. Look at that unstable temperature! Its fluctuating wildly between ... 22.5 and 23.5!

If you want to calm people down you chose a nice short time axis, a long measurement interval, go for a hundred percent on the vertical and throw in the outdoor conditions for comparison. Believe me, a twenty-four hour drift of 20% RH can be made to look like the horizon on a calm sea.

Would that be a form of dishonesty? Don't forget, I haven't told you where I placed the sensors.

The engineer may well give you readings from inside the air-conditioning ductwork. This is not a conventional place to display an object.

The engineer is not prone to panic in the way that a curator or exhibition manager is. He is concerned with his plant and not with your objects, so you may interpret his calm as an unwillingness to share your sense of urgency. But the engineer will "tell it like it is". He will guarantee you "plus or minus five" in most of the space, for most of the time, for most of the year, provided you don't turn any lights on or open the doors and let any people through. That sort of honesty gives you a good indication of what a realistic expectation should be.

    [Slides 11

    What's the damage?]

What's the damage? If we continue to tighten up environmental parameters. Plus or minus five, plus or minus four, three, two, one.... What's the damage if we relax those parameters to plus or minus ten, fifteen, or even twenty?

Its time for some cost-benefit analysis not to mention some risk assessment.

First the benefits. The benefits of sending an object to an exhibition elsewhere may be financial. They will certainly include a new and larger audience appreciating that object and may include new discoveries brought about by renewed interest or by comparison with other objects brought from other museums. A large proportion of the benefit is pleasure. For the public the pleasure of seeing beautiful or famous things. For the scholar the pleasure of new insights.

Now the costs. The costs of transporting an object and displaying it elsewhere are increased by the efforts to minimize risk during travel, and by the accommodation of individual environmental requirements. If these costs rise, as they must if we continue to narrow down parameters, then there will be fewer exhibitions and therefore a loss of pleasure.

What's the risk? Some objects are damaged when they are loaned. Most of this comes from bad packing or handling. Occasionally there is catastrophic damage caused by environment, usually a very large difference between the environments of lending and borrowing institutions. This is almost always caused by a large drop from consistently damp conditions.

Unsound objects are at risk. Objects that should never have attempted the journey because they were too frail may be damaged, but not usually by the environment. But I must stress that it is essential for a conservator to check condition before agreement to lend is made.

However, as far as environmental damage is concerned, my thesis is that if you move a sound object from an environment somewhere in that middle band of 50 plus or minus 15 to another environment that is also in that mid range, the risk of detectable additional deterioration is small.

And if you cant detect it, can you call it damage?

    [Slides 12

    Japanese exhibition, Japanese handling.]

The benefit is greater enjoyment. The greatest risk is from handling and packing. or indeed the activities of conservators. V&A staff were aghast at the condition-checking procedures of the conservators who travelled with the icon exhibition.


And that's probably why such a large amount of time is spent discussing the environment.

You don't have to get personal and offend people.

Environment is numbers and scientific and a little bit above your head.

Its not human behaviour and so not really any ones fault. While you really want to say "We are worried about lending to you because your object-handlers are crap!" you engage in displacement activities like worrying about relative humidity and getting upset by small reversible changes like cockling at the edge of a mounted print.

    [Slides 13

    Effigy, microclimate case.]

As a venue for exhibitions the V&A has been party to environmental damage. This 15th century polychromed wooden effigy from an English church was damaged because it underwent a long term drop of 40% relative humidity on going from a cold church to a warm museum. This type of predictable damage occurs when the lending institution does not have access to expertise on environment or object condition. The V&A is trying to minimise this kind of occurrence by sending out questionnaires that help an inexpert innocent begin to assess important factors in the object's environment and place the condition of the object in one of four accepted categories from sound to highly unstable. For anyone who is interested I have a few copies of these questionnaires with me or you can write to ask for them.

As a lender, if the V&A sends sensitive objects to venues where the environment may deviate from the broad median band, then the object is sent in its own microenvironment. This places the responsibility of care onto the lender and relieves the borrower of the opportunity to lie.

    [Slides 14

    Selous painting
    Graph of RH  and T during whole Japanese tour]

Computer modelling of the effect of relative humidity changes on oil paintings on canvas by Mecklenberg et al. predicts that a drop of 20% will almost certainly cause flaking. This large unglazed 19th century painting on loan to Japan was subjected to the fluctuating conditions on the right, which contain a number of 20% drops, as it was moved from venue to venue. We have no records of the abuse it suffered in the previous 140 years at the V&A but the point to note is that the additional environmental trauma imposed by the loan has left no visible scars.

"Aha"-you say "not visible to the naked eye, but if you had Vasari's digitising camera and computer processing, I bet you would see some damage then!"

Possibly, but what is the purpose of a painting? For the majority of people it is to gain information or emotional stimulation through the medium of the unaided eye. For a limited few the pleasure comes in using a microscope to gain information about technique and such people are not above creating a few losses themselves, or as they call it "taking samples from edges and damaged areas", in order to increase their pleasure.

Its cost and benefit. For the technical historian a little damage may increase enjoyment and understanding . For the benefit of pleasure to the exhibition visitor there may be a small cost in damage (not necessarily caused by the environment). But if it is not visible to the unaided eye and does not cause irreversible loss of unique information its a cost that can be easily justified.


Is the Head of Conservation saying "you have my permission to damage objects"?

Well... yes. Its something we have accepted for a long time. When we say "please display this textile at 50 lux" we are not saying "please look after this textile", we are saying "please damage this object at the rate that we specify".

Slides 15

What's the specification.

But this is vague and rather unsettling. Most Museum people will demand the security of firm guidance, some clear statement from a god with Olympian authority. I was horrified that Tim Padfield thought that Garry Thomson was merely a saint! But has not Garry Thomson been cast from Olympus by the new adept in hubris, Stefan Michalski?

I urge you to re-read Garry Thomson's book as I have just done. He is not as dogmatic or restrictive as people have come to believe.

I urge you to read Stefan Michalski's ICOM paper of last year. (Relative Humidity: a discussion of Correct/Incorrect Values p.624 Washington ICOM-CC Preprints) If you compare the two, there are many similarities. Both are unwilling to be definitive, both suggest there is more work to be done and both confirm that a change in RH of 10% is unlikely to cause damage.

Slides 16

What's the specification based on?

If there is a difference it is that Thomson centres on what is technically possible in terms of control and Michalski points to evidence of the link between changes in environment and changes in objects or materials. We should remain aware that much guidance on the environment is not based on relationship to damage, but on the technical feasibility of control and the measurability of the relevant parameters.

As technology improves, there is a danger that we will concentrate on improving the control of the environment and measuring smaller and smaller differences in conditions. All at a cost and probably to no benefit. We should not ignore the greater risks, and we should be aware of the real probability of damage resulting from a particular set of conditions.

Slides 17

What are the answers?

It was at this point that the computer just suddenly became totally Francophobe. I apologise to all French speaking delegates that I could think of no other way to insult them.

What are the solutions to the problems faced by people proposing to lend or to borrow?

My advice is......Firstly, learn more about the nature of the individual objects and learn more about the relationship between environment and changes in objects. David Erhart's paper would be a good place to start.

Relax. . .The risk of damage may be much less than you imagine. Large numbers of objects that might through routine ignorance be put into the plus or minus 5% bracket are robust enough to be lent from 50 plus or minus 15% to 50 plus or minus 15%.

Be more flexible. With this new found knowledge and improved confidence the lender can be generous about the borrower failing to meet guidelines by a few percent or for a few days. The courier, rather than being an over-protective policeman can become a confident negotiator, enabling local variations to broad agreements in the light of local resources.

Wouldn't it be magical if we all woke up realising that in the realistic working environment of a temporary exhibition we cannot practically measure or control the environment with extreme accuracy.... but it doesn't matter, as not all sensitive objects are that sensitive. On that day we could stop being "mature" and "economical with the truth".

Lets be honest .......on that day we could stop lying.

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