Museums increasingly leverage environment control systems
Thursday, Mar 28th 2013

While most scientific research occurs in university settings or by government agencies, museums are also critical in furthering human knowledge. As a result, these institutions are increasingly leveraging environment control systems that include temperature and humidity monitoring to protect priceless artifacts and to ensure that historical relics stay in pristine condition.

In fields such as history, paleontology and archeology, the items being researched can be thousands and even millions of years old. In addition, many of the artifacts inspected are made up of organic materials that tend to break down over time. As a result, the combination of degradation forces like time and corrosion makes these historically important items extremely fragile, according to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NDCC).

To help combat and slow down these degenerative forces, researchers and academics working in museums and other artifact-holding facilities are far more frequently turning to environment control systems. While humidity and temperature monitoring cannot undo or completely halt the damage caused by the centuries, state-of-the-art sensors can ensure that priceless items remain intact in their current condition for as long as possible, according to NDCC preservation consultant Beth Lindblom Patkus.

"Books, photographs, and other paper-based artifacts are vulnerable to damage from their environment," she wrote. "Heat, moisture, light, and pollutants produce destructive chemical reactions. Warmth and damp promote biological processes like mold and insect infestation. While some materials used to produce books, documents, and art on paper have proven quite durable, others (like ground wood pulp and acidic inks) deteriorate rapidly under adverse conditions. Museums, libraries, and historical societies are subject to the same phenomena as any other buildings, but have an extraordinary responsibility for preserving their collections for future generations. While we cannot eliminate all of the causes for decay of our cultural records without forfeiting access to our collections, we can greatly slow deterioration by moderating the environment."

According to the NDCC, museums need their environment control systems to account for a wide variety of variables, as even seemingly innocuous factors can cause a lot of damage. However, the two most important variables to deal with are temperature and humidity. Although ideal moisture and temperature levels vary depending on the materials present in a historic artifact and its present condition, typically conditions below 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 30 percent relative humidity are considered the gold standard. To monitor the environment, Lindblom Patkus recommended using a reliable humidity and temperature sensor.

Art preservationists increasingly rely on environment control systems
While all museums must diligently monitor external conditions to best preserve their stores, the damaging effects of temperature and relative humidity are especially a concern for art museums. After all, many of the most notable pieces of artwork are older and are comprised of materials prone to degrading over time. Considering that the value of these items often lies in their uniqueness, the need to preserve these artifacts becomes even greater. According to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, excess humidity can even change the shape and outward appearance of a painting.

"Acute changes in temperature and humidity will cause swelling and contraction as the materials in an object or artifact attempt to adjust to the environment," the museum said on its website. "Objects are often composed of more than one type of material. Each material responds differently to water vapor in the air and adjusts to its particular EMC (equilibrium moisture content) at different relative humidities. Of particular concern are the internal stresses created by expansion and contraction of the different materials as moisture diffuses into or out of the surrounding air."

To ensure that one of its renowned Rembrandt paintings can viewed for years in the future, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is turning to a monitoring system. Before the painter's 1642 piece The Nightwatch goes back on display next month, the museum will line the work with a variety of external sensors, Dutch News reported.