Photo credit: Zalfa Imani, Unsplash.
Elizabeth Burton is a practicing Paintings and Preventive Conservator from Los Angeles. She studied Art History at UCLA as an undergraduate and received her MA in Preventive Conservation from Northumbria University. Elizabeth has worked with many museums in California and currently teaches for the Northern States Conservation Center through which she offers online courses for heritage preservation professionals.

The best line of defense against damage to cultural heritage objects within a museum is a clean, quality environment, free of dust and pollutants.

While many larger museums are equipped with state-of-the-art HVAC systems, small museums often lack ways to moderate relative humidity, temperature, and air quality. Maintenance efforts can be expensive and thus perceived as far outside the budget for many small museums, but there are a series of actions that can be taken and products that can be purchased without using up valuable resources. Follow below for a series of tips and low-cost products that can help. 


1. Keep track of dust accumulation 

Minimize chances of an insect infestation by keeping surfaces clear of dust. Determine which areas are most likely to collect dust by placing black cards on surfaces throughout the space (whether it be a gallery, storage, or research room). Review the cards after a week or two and catalogue which areas in the museum are most prone to dust collection. These areas should be cleaned more frequently to avoid creating habitats for spiders and other insects, which prefer places that appear less frequently touched by human activity.

By keeping track of which areas need more frequent cleaning, the time spent by volunteers and museum personnel can be better targeted.


2. Keep current information for each object

Document each object within the museum, especially those preparing to go on display, to join the collection (on loan or permanently) or to enter storage. Note where in the museum the object has been displayed or stored, and classify each object’s fragility in terms of the light and relative humidity levels they should be exposed to.

Photograph objects periodically in the same positions and from the same angles as previous photos in order to keep a visual log of any changes that may have occurred over time.

By using an online art collection management system, you can digitize, organize, and access all of this information whether you're on-site or working from home.

Whenever an object is removed from packaging (either for shipment or storage), inspect the interior of the packaging for any insects, frass, or materials from the object. Isolate these elements for further review.  

Keep a log of how much light exposure each object has received per year and set a schedule for when objects should be removed from more direct lighting. By determining how much light per year each object can safely be exposed to without accumulating damage, displays can be better formulated to suit each object’s needs. Consider using Artwork Archive’s maintenance tracking program to keep track of conservation needs and treatment as well. 

Track maintenance, access condition reports, and log locations and other important information in Artwork Archive's online art collection management system—perfect for small museums. 

3. Minimize VOCs 

Measure indoor air quality with a monitor and place air purifiers appropriate for the size of each space in areas that have consistently low or fluctuating air quality.

Become better acquainted with seasonal outdoor air quality in your area (e.g. fire season in California) and consider how these fluctuations may impact a collection stored indoors. Many air quality/pollution monitors/meters can be purchased for under $150, with some air purifiers relatively affordable as well. The Winix 5500-2 is considered an excellent, budget-friendly choice at #3 on a list of “The 7 Best Air Purifiers for VOCs.” The $160 air purifier comes with a water-washable, 12-month-lifespan filter capable of blocking “any tiny particulates from the air that are sized down to 0.3 microns.”


4. Track visitor impact and adjust accordingly

If the gallery space is not equipped with a constantly running HVAC system, it may be impacted by the heat and moisture from visitors. Take note of how the relative humidity and temperature change within the gallery space when a certain number of visitors are together within the space. Adjust accordingly with humidifiers, dehumidifiers, and fans, or limit the number of people permitted in the gallery at one time to reduce climate fluctuations.


5. Monitor, filter, and cool down light

A cheap way to improve the quality of light that falls upon objects within a museum is to add tinted UV film to external windows. UV protective film strips can also be placed over acrylic or glass display case panels. These UV films should be replaced every five years or so, as they begin to lose efficacy over time.

Any halogen or fluorescent bulbs (the latter of which emit too much UV light) should be replaced with LED lights and a dimmer switch should be installed wherever possible. With a very low UV output and very little emitted heat, LED lights are economical and least harmful to art objects.

Consider purchasing blue wool dosimeter textile fading cards like those sold by Talas for under $20 each or exposure strips (specifically those by LightCheck) to determine the intensity of light that falls in certain areas of the museum from season to season.

Dior Exhibit at Dallas Museum of Art. Photo credit: Laura Briola, Unsplash


6. Store and display with like objects

Displaying and storing objects of like materials allows for more precise environmental controls specific to each type of object, rather than the average typically aimed for with mixed collections. By responding to the needs of each type of object, damage due to relative humidity and temperature is less likely to occur. 


7. Identify and create micro-environments

Temperature and relative humidity can vary significantly from one area of a gallery space to another. Consider humidity indicator cards like those sold by Talas for just four dollars each to take readings around the museum, including in display cases. The color on the strips changes over time to indicate shifts in humidity (within 10% increments). The Standard Cards offered by Talas can be dried out and reused, making them even more affordable.

Consider silica gels for display cases intended to show objects that require a different level relative humidity than the gallery’s overall ambient RH. Some preconditioned silica gels like Art Sorb’s silica beads can both release and remove atmospheric moisture.


8. Rotate or cover permanent collections items

While many gallery spaces have permanent installations on view all year, especially in heritage houses and local historical society museums, many of the objects within these displays should not be subjected to such consistent light exposure. Rotate or cover objects to prevent over-exposure to light, dust, and other polluting materials in the gallery space.

For objects that are constantly on display and cannot be safely moved to another area of the gallery (e.g. a large, heavy or delicate tapestry mounted to one wall), consider installing blackout curtains or a vitrine with UV film over the front and sides. 


9. Keep a log of environmental recordings

Purchase a lux meter, thermo-hygrometer, and UV-intensity monitor (photometer) if within budget. Many lux meters and thermo-hygrometers are available online for under $100 each. Take readings from different times of day each season and log the results. When considering a new display, reference these recordings in order to determine where objects of varying sensitivity to light and relative humidity should be placed. 


10. Reduce indoor climate fluctuations

Consider placing weather stripping under each door to prevent pests from entering the museum. Weatherstripping can be purchased from any home improvement store for minimal cost. In his article “Improving the Energy Efficiency of Your Historic Building's Exterior Doors” for the Wisconsin Historical Society, Bob Yapp explains that strip-style weather-stripping, spring metal weather-stripping, and threshold weather-stripping are all effective ways to “to stop air infiltration” and maintain a consistent indoor climate without the use of an expensive HVAC system. 


Image credit: Omer Sonido, Unsplash


Mentioned Products

Blue Wool Dosimeter - $17.60 each through Talas

UV-Blocking Film - $179.99 for a box of 24” x 100’ at The Home Depot

Dimmable LED Bulbs - $6.97 for a package of two at The Home Depot

UV-Intensity Meter - $38.99 on Amazon

Thermo-hygrometer - $99.00 on Amazon

Digital Lux Meter - $54.89 on Amazon

Weather Stripping - $8.99 for a 39” roll on Amazon

Black Colored Paper Sheets - $2.19 per 135 Gsm sheet through Talas

VOC-Removing Air Purifier - Winix 5500-2 Air Purifier available on Amazon for $159.99

Air Quality Monitor/Pollution Meter - Meter by EG available on Amazon for $120

Silica Beads - Art Sorb Beads from Talas, $49.60 for a bag

Humidity Indicator Cards - $4.00 each from Talas

Cropped Blackout Curtains - $30.99 for a set on Amazon


When considering cost-effective maintenance strategies, don't overlook your collection management system.

Many databases are overly complex and overpriced for the functionality that is needed by your small museum. Artwork Archive has helped collecting institutions all over the globe organize, manage, and protect their artworks. We offer an affordable price (plans start at $29/month) and offer a nonprofit discount too. Plus, we'll migrate your data into your new account at no extra cost. 


Start a free trial with Artwork Archive to start preserving your art collection today.