WAACNewsletter
January 1998 Volume 20 Number 1

Conference Review


Conference on the Collections Environment

Washington, D.C., Sept. 3-5, 1997

A meeting on Collections Environments was held at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from September 3 to 5, 1997. The purpose of the meeting was to critically evaluate present standards/recommendations for all aspects of the collections environments and to discuss the potential impact of recent research results.

The meeting was organized by the Conservation Analytical Laboratory (CAL) of the Smithsonian Institution and financially supported by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT).

To foster open discussions the meeting was by invitation only and without an audience. Participants were: P.N. Banks, A. Beale, J.P. Brown, G. Cass, E. Conrad, M. Frost, L. Kelter, R. Kerschner, W.P. Lull, S. Maekawa, S. Michalski, P.N. Perrot, F.D. Preusser (chair), J. Reilly, W. Rose, D. Saunders, L. Stuebing, R. Waller, S. Weintraub, and A. Zhivov. Observers: R. Bishop, M. Gilberg, B. Schneider, D. Williams, and L. v. Zelst.

Discussion topics included: the building envelope; HVAC technologies; chemical, mechanical and biological deterioration; relative humidity, temperature and air pollution; energy and cost savings strategies, and the work of the relevant committees of ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc.) and ISIAQ (International Society for Indoor Air Quality and Climate). The meeting covered historic houses, museums, libraries and archives, both in historic structures and buildings con- structed for the purpose of housing collections. It also addressed the problems of different climate zones. A significant amount of time was spent discussing risk assessment and the planning and decision making process.

It is planned to prepare one or more publications on the subject of this meeting, incorporating its findings.

Summary of Conclusions:

Decisions on control parameters for a collection cannot be made in isolation, but instead should result from a systematic process that starts with a review of the mission of the holding institution and the development of a master plan for the institution and the collection. All interested parties should be involved in the entire decision making process from the very beginning.

Factors such as the use of the collection by the constituency of the holding institution and the frequency of access to the collection, as well as the character of the building in which these collections are housed, are of paramount importance when alternative options for improvements in the collection environment are subsequently evaluated.

The next step should consist of a comprehensive risk assessment for the collection and the building in which it is housed. Often, natural and man made disasters, frequent and improper handling, and inadequate security and fire protection pose a greater risk to collections than fluctuations in environmental parameters. Available resources should therefore first be invested in the mitigation of the greatest risks.

Once it is determined that existing environmental settings and fluctuations are the largest remaining threat to the long term survival of a collection a plan for environmental improvements can be drawn up. For this purpose it is essential to know the nature and condition of the collection and to fully understand the performance characteristics of the building within the local climate. Any environmental improvements should start with such improvements in the building envelope as are safe to its fabric and, where applicable, allowable within the historical/aesthetical context. Only after this task has been accomplished can one sensibly plan ways to further improve the interior environment.

Before deciding on the set points of humidity and temperature, permissible fluctuations, and seasonal drifts one has to understand if the deterioration of the collection is mostly chemical or mechanical. One also should know what percentages of the collection are of very high, high, medium, or low vulnerability to environmental damage.

Based on this knowledge of the collections, the building and the local climate one can approach a decision about the proper humidity and temperature settings. Different standards may be required for different types of collections. The use of microclimates should be considered as a valid strategy for protection of the more vulnerable objects.

A well controlled environment with humidity fluctuations of +/- 5% is still considered the safest environment. However, individual conditions, including the nature of the building and the collections can warrant the specification of more widely relaxed standards after careful consideration and with awareness that the risk for environmental damage may increase for parts of the collections as larger fluctuations are permitted.

A flagship HVAC system, providing a flatline environment should only be considered if the resources for its operation and maintenance are assured in the long term. If budgetary considerations, the nature of the building, or other factors make this unfeasible, alternative strategies including multiple (micro)climates for different parts of the collection can be evaluated.

For most institutions that presently operate or plan to install a mechanical climate control system, a relaxation of the presently most common standards will not likely lead to great cost savings, although small to moderate savings may result. Any such savings, however, as well as the concomitant increase in risk to the collections, are dependent on the state and nature of the collections and the building in which they are housed.

Frank D. Preusser
Conference Chair

A dissenting view of these issues was posted on the January 9 DistList by four researchers at CAL. It appeared too late for inclusion in this issue but may be found in the DistList Archives.

Modern Art: Who Cares?

An international Symposium on the Conservation of Modern Art

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, September 8-10, 1997

This was an exceptionally good conference: intellectually stimulating, well-organized, and with the goal to foster ongoing practical and theoretical exchanges in an area of conservation deserving more information, more research, and more discussion. A publication about the symposium and the Dutch Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art will be issued in 1998. If your area is modern art, you will want a copy.

Here is some background information. Modern Art: Who Cares? was organized by the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art, a group of 17 Dutch museums, universities, conservation, scientific, and artists' research institutes. Individuals in the group are curators, conservators, research scientists, legal experts, and ethicists, reflecting an emphasis on interdisciplinarity. The Foundation evolved in response to the perception in the Netherlands that there was a lack of information and theoretical construct to approach the conservation of modern art. The Stedeliijk Museum Barnett Newmann controversy seems to have played a role, as did the more general national initiative, the Second Delta Plan, a centralized effort to address the preservation of the Dutch cultural heritage.

The Foundation undertook the Project Conservation of Modern Art, an 18 month-long study of 10 objects selected by curators in the participating museums which were felt to epitomize complex conservation issues. (Nine of the objects were presented in an exhibition concurrent with the symposium, installed at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.) The symposium was actually viewed as the last stage of the Project: the means to present and evaluate both process and results, with emphasis on models developed to standardize information gathering and decision-making for treatment.

The symposium also had the support of the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, a department in the Dutch government Ministry of Culture, Education, and Science. Lastly, 13 international museums and research institutes were involved in conference preparation. (The Guggenheim and Tate Gallery were the two English language members.)

The briskly paced, three day symposium included 20 papers with questions and answer sessions; a visit to the Rotterdam exhibition; 17 concurrent seminars in which the 450 conference participants gathered in groups of 20 or so to examine specific topics (such as training, ethics, legal issues, preserving artist's intent, electronic media, installation art); and two panels: the Director's Forum-questions directed to 5 directors of major European museums of modern art-and a roundtable discussion with two curators, a conservator, and three artists. The conference closed with summaries of the seminars and general discussion.

The topic of conservation of modern art is immense.The main achievement of the conference was to raise and refine an understanding of the general conservation issues presented by diverse, often non-traditional media; the complexities of artist's intent; treatment ethics and collections management. The critical importance of an interdisciplinary approach and information sharing was stressed throughout.

Not surprisingly, general issues of media and artist's intent were most often expressed through very informative presentations on work of specific artists --Jean Tinguely, Tony Cragg, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Carl Andre and Donald Judd--or specific categories of media--electronic media, contemporary photography, and monochrome paintings.

Comprehensive data recording as a basis for conservation and preservation were repeatedly emphasized.The unprecedented diversity of media has created a serious need for scientific research on new materials, including deterioration mechanisms. Also important is recording specific information about materials and technique as early as possible in the life of a work, optimally involving contact with the artist and a detailed description of original condition, including a visual record. The Foundation encouraged creation of an international materials data network and conference hand-outs referred to a meeting in March, 1997 to assess the possibilities. One of the seminars further addressed the proposal. If you would like to obtain more information, contact modart@xs4all.nl or Dionne Sille, at the address cited below.

Understanding content and artist's intent are fundamental to assessment of condition and treatment, yet they are not necessarily self-evident. Modern works can have complex meaning with highly individualized degrees of importance of the role of materials and aspects of installation. Information obtained from the artist soon after completion of the work serves as the basis for the most accurate understanding of the relationship between materials and content. Insight from the curator/art historian is also essential.

The Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art has prepared a "model for data registration" which will be published in the conference papers. It is intended to offer a format to standardize comprehensive record of materials, technique, artist's intent and current condition. It was clear that a number of institutions have or intend to create their own data bases reflecting their own institutional needs and priorities, for example one in use at the Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt with a collection of 5,000 objects.

While many presentations established the primacy of accurate information about materials, technique, and content, the same presentations and subsequent discussions acknowledged that there are practical limits to what can be known and recorded. This dichotomy was most vividly illustrated in the artists/curators/conservator panel, and Carol Stringari's talk on installation art.

Moving into critically important but more difficult territory, were papers on modern art and restoration ethics by Ernst van der Wettering and Ijsbrand Hummelen's summary of the Foundation Decision Making Model for the Conservation and Restoration of Modern Art. Van der Wettering's talk emphasized the importance of ethics in restoration, particularly as a responsibility to subsequent generations. At the same time, and as we well know, codification is elusive. The Decision Making Model, which was also distributed in written form and will presumably be re-published in the papers, offered a comprehensive analysis of the process, factors to consider, and the potential for treatment to alter the meaning of a work. The overall conclusion that treatment decisions always represent a compromise among competing factors is certainly correct. It will be interesting to see the reaction to this model once it has larger distribution. Daily application may be another matter.

Preservation policy and preventative conservation did not receive as much specific attention as they warrant. Still it was implicit in many presentations that --for many but not all works--they offer the most direct means to preserve artist's original intent and forestall the worst of the ethical dilemmas of treatment. The Directors Forum--an exchange among directors of 5 high profile European museums of modern art responding to a series of questions from Jaqueline Burckhardt, editor of Parkett and a former conservator--offered fascinating discussion about decisions in collections management: acquisitions, lending, and financial pressures.

The topic of specialized training for conservators of modern art was raised in one of the seminars with a call put out to training programs to share thoughts and experiences. Efforts in this area are underway in the Dutch Limburg Conservation Institute in Maastricht and in the Danish School for Conservation in Copenhagen.

Lastly, a talk about legal aspects of conservation brought up artist's rights, specifically in relation to architects. This is yet another important topic which the conference could only broach in a preliminary way.

The organizers of the symposium deserve great thanks for having created a lively and positive forum which must live on in some form. Beyond the formation of a data sharing network, come questions of interconnection with existing European and American conservation organizations.

Note: A survey was distributed to conference participants which solicited information on artist's materials and technique, research on materials, and treatment for possible inclusion in"an international network in the future". If you would like to learn more, contact: Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, Dionne Sille, P.O. Box 76709, 1070 KA, Amsterdam.

Irene Konefal

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