PREVENTIVE CONSERVATION AND THE EXHIBITION PROCESS: DEVELOPMENT OF EXHIBIT GUIDELINES AND STANDARDS FOR CONSERVATION
TOBY J. RAPHAEL
3 THE COMMON RISKS OF EXHIBITION
Behind the effort to regulate the exhibit development process is the fact that museums, naturally, put their most significant objects on display and, by doing so, place these collections at much greater risk than if they had remained under the controlled conditions of protective storage. It is these risks that must be addressed in a systematic manner, and exhibit specialists, until recently have had little help in discovering what are the “givens” and what are the “options” in terms of conservation.
The NPS, like the Smithsonian Institution, is responsible for caring for this country's national collections. NPS collections, approximately 100 million items, are generally located at or near their original historic locations. As a result, they are almost always exhibited in buildings not originally designed as museums and which do not meet museum standards. Understandably, the concept of the exhibit micro-environment has come to play a central role in preserving any cultural resources put on display in these challenging environments.
A well-designed and well-engineered exhibit case can provide a highly effective micro-environment. When designed and fabricated under the oversight of knowledgeable conservators, the exhibit case becomes the most important and cost-effective tool for preserving vulnerable collections. The NPS has begun to refer to these enclosures as conservation-grade exhibit cases. From the perspective of sustainability, the micro-environmental approach to exhibiting vulnerable collections makes perfect sense. Energy consumption is reduced. The need to install costly, building-wide air controlling systems to meet museum standards is alleviated. Accordingly, the exhibit case is considered central to preservation technology and is a major focus of discussion and specifications.
Although display in cases and vitrines has been the norm for most museum exhibits, the pitfalls and benefits of conventional display enclosures are only now being calculated by conservation specialists and shared with exhibit specialists. The assumption has been that the traditional display case is an effective means of mitigating damage while objects remain on exhibit. The truth is that, until now, exhibit specialists have had little information about the impact of common exhibit cabinetry on vulnerable collections or the degree to which they actually provide protection. As more is learned about the traditional exhibit cabinet from scientists, there is serious reason to be concerned. Research indicates that the exhibit case has an alarming potential for exacerbating the deterioration of its contents.
The strategy to promote is that a properly engineered enclosure has an equally great potential for protecting and preserving vulnerable collections. When objects on display are housed in well-designed and carefully fabricated cases, they can be effectively preserved at levels remarkably close to those provided in storage. The one risk or mechanism of change that is by definition different from storage conditions is exposure to light. Recent developments in technology, however, are giving us new ways to circumvent this agent of deterioration: witness the huge variety of commercially available visitor-driven occupancy sensors and white light LED lighting systems that do not produce ultraviolet or infrared radiation. The technology is now available for museum staff to require that their display enclosures methodically preserve their collections in conservation-grade cabinetry. When procuring new casework, NPS museums will soon have access to new tools to specify what preservation features and levels of performance are to be expected.