Climate Control for Artwork / by Jeannine Cook

The other day, the Indianapolis Museum of Art announced that it was allowing greater fluctuations in the temperature and humidity ranges in most of the museum galleries and storage spaces. The goal is to save energy and thereby reduce carbon emissions, a key initiative the Museum has apparently embraced for the last five years, according to the ArtDaily.org article.

Recent research has shown that there can safely be as much as 15% fluctuation in relative humidity and variations of as much as ten degrees Celsius in temperature in all but a few galleries (those where composite artwork is displayed or stored, such as Asian screens and scrolls). Conservation Analytical Laboratory researchers concluded that there is no need to be so meticulous over climate control as museums have been: "materials such as wood, cellulose, various polymer coating, fibers, minerals, pigments and the like share an overlapping range of tolerance to temperature and relative humidity. " It is thus far more energy efficient to allow more variations in temperature and relative humidity in museum facilities, according to the time of day, during a 24 hour cycle. According to the new standards set out by the IMA," with incremental seasonal adjustments, the range for humidity will be 50% RH +/- 8 (with a variation percentage of +/- 6% in a 24 hour period) and for temperature will be 70°F +/- 4 (with a variation percentage of +/- 2° in a 24 hour period."

What does all this mean for the general public, with artwork and other important objects in our homes or even in many galleries? I take it to mean that art in general, particularly work done on paper, for example, is more adaptable that most people believed to normal climatic conditions. Obviously, living in tropical or sub-tropical areas is extremely taxing on art and artifacts. Nonetheless, in a home which is air-conditioned and at temperatures comfortable to its human inhabitants, most work can survive reasonably - if, and a big if, it is treated archivally in the first place.

Works on paper need to be matted, if necessary, with acid-free museum mat-board, mounted archivally and properly protected in suitable frames. Hanging art work on outside walls, if they are not very well insulated, is hazardous, even with air-conditioning, and bright sunlight is another danger.

It seems to be that every one of us can be moderate and sensible about climate control in the stewardship of art. We can thus, even incrementally, help in the reduction of energy consumption. The Gulf debacle lends this endeavour even more relevance...