Saturday, January 10, 2009
Towards the Sustainable Collection?
The Winter 2008 edition of Museum Practice contains a thought-provoking article by David Martin on balancing sustainable practices in museums with the exacting environmental standards that we set for the specimens in our care. Sustainability is a buzz word for many institutions these days and museums are no exception – aside from ethical considerations there are significant financial incentives for the adoption of sustainable practices, from food packaging and waste disposal all the way through to the design and construction of new buildings. In this climate, it’s unrealistic to expect that sustainability should not extend to the ways in which we manage our collections. The concern is that the environmental standards that we are setting are so stringent, and our buildings so incapable of meeting them, that the only way they can be met is by expensive, energy-intensive engineering solutions. So, why not go for broader, risk-based strategies that emphasize passive methods of environmental control, integrated pest management, risk management, and better building maintenance? This is the approach that is being promoted by a number of organizations, notably the Institute of Conservation's Care of Collections Group. This is all well and good and many collection managers, faced with a lack of funds for capital upgrades to their storage facilities, have learned the benefit of using passive, microclimate techniques to reduce the effects of environmental fluctuations on specimens. But as I read the article I began to feel distinctly uneasy. Natural history museums have lagged far behind their fine arts equivalents in the implementation of environmental standards and it’s taken a lot of time and effort on the part of our profession to educate curators and administration that natural science specimens can be subject to as much damage and loss of value as a result of poor controls as paintings or textiles. By relaxing standards, are we sending a message that environmental controls are less important than we originally argued? It could be that we are providing future administrators with an opportunity to “value engineer” the specifications of new storage buildings, using sustainability as cover for a lack of investment. It’s also worrying to see better building maintenance highlighted as a crucial piece of the sustainability jigsaw when the experience of many museum professionals is that it’s far easier to raise money to build a new buildings than to maintain existing ones. But the part of Martin’s article that I found most worrying was the argument that strict environmental parameters specified by lenders are acting as a barrier to institutional loans. Museum Practice is published by the UK Museums Association and in the UK exhibit loans are still primarily seen as an outreach and collections-access mechanism. But for many US institutions (including the one that I used to work for) travelling exhibits are a significant revenue stream. Museum business offices have a mandate to sell these exhibits to as many institutions as possible and this is taking our specimens to some surprising places. I’m all in favor of finding novel venues which allow objects to be experienced by a wider audience and in different ways than can be done in a conventional museum setting. However, the dollar argument is a powerful one, and one of the few things that can overrule it is the counter argument that specimens in our care are being put at risk by the choice of venue. There are ways to safely and sustainably exhibit specimens – by using well-sealed cases buffered with silica gel, for example – but these are often more costly. Which brings me back to my earlier point; we need to be very careful about doing anything that sends a message that environmental controls are not important. Sustainability is a good thing, but if it is to be done properly it will still cost money. Promoting it as a cost-saving measure is not a good long-term approach for collections care.