The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 16, Number 3
Jun 1992


A Loan Kit for Environmental Testing: Outreach in Minnesota

by Robert Herskovitz
Head, Conservation Department, Minnesota Historical Society

Reprinted, with permission, and incorporating minor editorial changes, from the AIC Objects Specialty Group Postprints, vol. 1, 1991.

As one component of a two-year preservation outreach project in 1990-91, the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) assembled two portable environmental test kits for loan to cultural institutions throughout the state-museums, libraries and archives. The concept originated at the Canadian Conservation Institute and was adapted by Barbara Moore, who was then with the Arizona State Museum, and the author, who was then with the Arizona Historical Society.

The kit consists of three instruments and four other testing or monitoring components, packed in urethane foam within a hard shell suitcase that has a combination lock. The kit includes an INS (model LX-101) digital light meter reading in units of lux (from Edmund Scientific), an Elsec model 762 W light meter, a Psychro-Dyne battery operated psychrometer (from Cole-Parmer), a copy of The Museum Environment (2nd edition), an Abbey pH Pen, a humidity indicator card (from Humidial), a blue wool card (from Talas), spare batteries, and an instruction manual. The manual describes the purpose and gives instructions on the use of each item in the kit. It also includes a sample form for recording temperature, humidity and light levels, a list of suppliers with addresses and phone numbers, and the phone number for MHS's objects conservator should there be any questions or problems. Each borrower keeps the following items: instruction manual, pH pen, blue wool card, and humidity indicator card.

The kit is shipped insured via U.S. mail or UPS to be used by each borrower for a period of one week. At the end of the loan period, the kit is either returned to MHS or sent on to the next borrowing institution. Scheduling and coordination, which were originally handled by Preservation Outreach Project staff, are accomplished by MHS's Field Services Coordinator with occasional assistance from the Conservation Department. Aside from staff time, the only expense to the borrower is the cost of return shipping and insurance.

The target audience for the kit includes small and medium size museums, special and academic libraries, and academic, city, county, and court archives. It was found that larger institutions were also quite eager to avail themselves of the service (although their staff was more sophisticated and familiar with the problems of environmental control), because they did not have access to the proper equipment.

The objectives were several: 1) to provide instruments for small institutions that might not have the resources to purchase them; 2) to enable staff to gather and use meaningful data rather than having to rely on a consultant; 3) to eliminate the fear and aversion that minimally trained staff often feel about science or "high tech" conservation by selecting easily used instruments and providing uncomplicated easy-to-follow instructions; 4) to emphasize that simple practical, and manageable monitoring is the first step in controlling and improving the environment; and 5) finally, to communicate that environmental control is a preventive conservation measure which yields significant benefits to the entire collection, not just a few items or even a specific group that is but a small part of the whole.

The program has been popular and successful. The kits are usually reserved and scheduled several months in advance. They are being used both by first time users and by institutions wishing to monitor spaces during different seasons. In addition to raising awareness of conditions and educating staff, the kit has led to substantive improvements and changes at several institutions. One museum used the data-gathering in a successful grant proposal to install a new exhibit lighting system. Several other institutions have installed temporary humidity control, while one secured a grant to upgrade an HVAC system.

The need for more extensive data on temperature and humidity is now being addressed with the addition of several ACR temperature/humidity dataloggers (model XT-102, from Herzog/Wheeler, Minneapolis). These self-contained units suffer no damage from frequent movement and shipping and do not require the frequent calibration that recording hygrothermographs do.

The datalogger is accompanied by a form (for logging time and date installed and removed) and an instruction manual. The manual describes the importance of temperature and humidity control and makes suggestions for how to use the instrument; e.g., three weeks in one room, one week in each of three rooms, etc. It also contains a typical graph and statistical summary chart. The datalogger is loaned separately for a period of three weeks. When it is returned to the conservation department, the department secretary downloads the data into a PC, and prints both graphs and statistics. The logger is then cleared and sent to the Field Services Officer for shipment to the next institution on the schedule. The printout is sent to the MHS Objects Conservator for review and comments as appropriate, before returning it to the borrowing institution. In many cases a form letter can be sent along with the printouts to the borrowing institution, discussing any problems they have made apparent.

The dataloggers have proved very popular and, like the test kits, are booked months in advance. Both dataloggers and test kits will continue to circulate.

Suppliers

Item Supplier Phone
pH pens Abbey Publications 801/373-1598
The Museum Environment Butterworths 617/438-8464
Portable psychrometer Cole-Parmer 800/323-4340
Digital lux meter Edmund Scientific Co 609/573-6260
W light monitor Type 762 ELSEC Littlemore Scientific Eng. Co Railway Lane, Littlemore Oxford, OX4 4PZ England
Blue wool standards cards Talas 212/736-7744
Humidity indicator cards Humidial Corp. 714/825-1793

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