Searchlight at Dusk, 1941 by Eric Ravilious (d. 1942). Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash.
Moya Dumville is a Paper Conservator and Risk Analysis Advisor with Protect Heritage. She has worked as a conservator at public and private institutions in Canada and the US. Moya currently resides in Kingston, Ontario where she is a board member of Heritage Kingston and the Kingston Community Garden and Food Forest.
Your artworks may be at risk. Learn how to protect your collection from these ten agents of deterioration.
As a conservator, I often get asked about the most important things to consider when storing or maintaining a collection. Actually, the most common question I get asked is ‘what’s the coolest thing you’ve ever worked on?’ but the storage question is a close second.
Whether you’re maintaining a collection at home, in an institution, or at a storage facility, the following hazards represent most of the risks we encounter with collections.
1. Physical forces
Physical forces can damage objects directly by causing breakage, deformation, and wear. Objects can also be indirectly damaged by physical forces. Consider when a sticking drawer is opened or closed. The glass or ceramics inside can lurch and collide.
Damage from physical force ranges from imperceptible hairline fissures and minute losses, to total shattering.
2. Thieves and vandals
Thieves can damage collections by either outright stealing objects, which may be an obvious burglary, or by pilfering smaller items that might go unnoticed for some time.
How can you protect yourself against theft? You can purchase sensors to alarm in case of movement (there are some affordable options). And, you can detect losses by having a complete inventory with pictures and auditing through searches for random objects. If you don’t have an art inventory system, consider a cloud-based system like Artwork Archive.
Everyone should have a fire evacuation plan and a working smoke detection system. Prevention is the best measure here—avoid clutter and electrical hazards. You can also refer to this article about protecting your artwork against fire risk.
While the odds that your collection will experience a fire are relatively low, the odds of your artwork being damaged by water are much higher. Water can come from numerous places. Pipes burst, basements flood and roofs leak.
To avoid water damage, consider where you are storing your collections. Keep your objects out of basements and away from windows, water coolers and pipes. Keep all objects raised off the floor by at least 10 cm. If leakes from above are a concern, tent plastic sheeting above objects, preferably not in direct contact.
Water detectors are inexpensive and a good investment where floor level flooding is possible.
Photo credit: Georgia de Lotz courtesy of Unsplash
Pests, both insects and vermin, can disfigure, damage, and destroy your collection. Organic materials such as paper, textiles, skins and feathers are particularly vulnerable to this hazard. Keep your collection spaces clean, dry, uncluttered, and regularly inspected.
Pollutants can come from both inside and outside of confined spaces like a storage building. Most serious damage to collection items arises from close association of a pollutant source and sensitive collection items. Examples are wool emitting sulfur gasses and tarnishing silver, or wood pulp paper, folders, mats, etc. discolouring art on paper. Be careful in choosing materials that will be close to, or in intimate contact with, your collection.
7. Light exposure
Light exposure is unavoidable if objects are to be enjoyed. This means that art will need to be exposed to light to some extent, but there are tactics that can be used to limit risk.
Avoid placing works of art in direct sunlight and avoid any strong lighting of items. Ensure that all indoor lighting is LED, incandescent, or UV filtered. Damage from light is cumulative and often cannot be reversed.
8. Adverse temperature
Temperatures that are too warm cause damage over a long period of time. The slow rate of damage from adverse temperature is often underestimated. A stable, moderate temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler is recommended.
Certain collections, such as films, photographs, and plastics, benefit from colder storage.
9. Adverse relative humidity
Adverse relative humidity can damage materials, particularly organic materials. These materials will absorb and release moisture, causing the object to swell and shrink. Excursions of either high or low relative humidity can cause objects to warp, crack, or tear.
Controlling humidity at a building level can be expensive, but it is possible to create sufficiently stable environments for most collections by avoiding temperature extremes and gradients as well as sources of excess moisture. And if necessary, provide some evaporative humidification during dry seasons—typically during the winter heating season.
Easily avoid dissociation with an art inventory database like Artwork Archive.
Dissociation results from the natural tendency for ordered systems to fall apart over time. This basically means that you have something, but you don’t know what it is. Once you’ve lost any relevant data, the object has no contextual meaning. For example, you may have pictures but don't know who the pictures are of, or you have a painting without artist information or provenance.
Keeping a document record with any relevant data attached safely to the object will reduce this, and maintaining an up-to-date database with all relevant information can reduce this risk to almost zero.
Anytime a collection object moves, whether for loan, exhibition, or to be relocated within the physical collection, the database will need to be updated to reflect this information, and ensure that all relevant information stays with the object, and there is no subsequent loss of value. You can track locations and your objects’ movements with location tracking in Artwork Archive. Learn more about your "artwork's guardian" here.
Mitigating these risks is an incredibly important aspect of managing a collection and while dissociation is the only one of these that is non-physical in nature, maintaining proper collection records is essential.
It's a wise investment to seek advice from a conservator.
Conservators can provide advice on proper care for your artworks, especially those that are particularly valuable or sensitive. Qualified conservation professionals can be found through the American Institute for Conservation, the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators, or comparable organizations in other countries.