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Managing Your Collection
Managing a collection is both a simple and complex issue. There are a set number of guidelines that institutions should follow, and which cover a wide range of areas. This can seem overwhelming when one is faced with a whole collection and an entire building instead of individual pieces and rooms. It is because there is so much information to be considered that the prospect ofmanaging a collection may seem daunting to some. In order to help institutions and their professionals get started with this task, this article aims to give a quick overview of the basic procedures to be applied, dividing them into two categories:
- Preventive conservation
Inventorying a collection
The American Heritage Dictionary defines inventories as a “detailed, itemized list, report, or record of things in one's possession”.The British Collections Trust defines it as ensuring one has the basic information needed to be accountable for the objects in one’s care.
In both cases it is understood that an inventory is a descriptive record of a collection, a document that brings together all the information necessary to allow us to quickly and unequivocallyidentify an object.The reason we create inventory recordsis to both know what we have and how to protect it. This knowledge allows us to understand our collections as well as organize exhibits and loans.
An inventory number is a unique code given to an object that allows it to be immediately identified within a collection. It is standardized for all worksheld by the institution, and can include the year the pieceentered the collection, the institution’sinitials, a code indicating the type of object or whether it belongs to a larger set (like a tea set), etc.
An inventory record is a document that contains the above inventory number, as well as a several elements presenting the piece itself: the title and/or a brief description, photographs of its front and backas well as of any important details or characteristics, measurements, author and dates of creation, place it was found and place it originated from (more so if they are two different ones), informationon how and when it entered the collection, mentions of any loans or exhibits it has been part of, etc.An inventory record acts, therefore, as an identity card.
Some countries have specific legislationsregarding inventory numbers and records. Should this be the case for your collection then those laws and regulations should be applied first, with further details added to the record to complement any missing information, if necessary.
In terms of protection, an inventory is of utmost importance: an object that is not properly recorded, if stolen or missing, will be very difficult if not impossible to identify and recover. Without a photograph and a proof of ownership, which the inventory record is part of, there is very little chance of ever recovering it.
In 2008, at the Triennial Conference of the Committee for Conservation of the International Council of Museums (ICOM-CC), worldwide representatives of the conservation-restoration world voted on harmonized definitions for terms used by professionals in the field. One of these terms was “Preventive conservation”.
For over 10 years, the internationally accepted notion of preventive conservation has thus been that itconcerns the “measures and actions aimed at avoiding and minimizing future deterioration or loss.” These actions are never applied directly onto the object, which would fall under the categories of restoration and remedial conservation, but to the environment around it.
Environmental management such as ensuring the proper level of luminosity for the different materials (lux),appropriate temperatureand relative humidity,or keeping the exhibition and storage areas free of pollutants (insects, dust), are all an essential part of preventive conservation.
Other preventive conservation measures to be considered when managing collections are the issues of storage handling, packing and transportation, emergency planning, and even education of staff and public awareness. All of these contribute to ensuring that the general environment, both physical and non-physical, of a collection are properly maintained.
Since preventive conservation is such an important part of diligent collection management, it is important to keep a few general rules in mind.These rules should always be checked against the types of collections and the specificities of the pieces themselves. Some materials may be more sensitive than others either because it’s in their nature or due to the way they may have been stored. Organic materials are more sensitive than inorganic ones, but even within these there the levels of sensitivity differ, e.g.polychrome ceramic is more sensitive than non-polychrome stone.
When faced with an object that is a combination of materials, always lean towards the safe side and apply the measures of the most sensitive one among them.
A lux is a unit of illuminance equal to one lumen per square metre, it is read using a light meter. The lux is used to calculate the amount of light that an object can be subjected to and for how long, it is expressed in lux hours (the exposure hours multiplied by the recommended light intensity) and it is understood that the number, usually in the thousands, is an annual amount.
It is very important to have the proper lux for the materials in one’s collection, but though having precise measurements is ideal realistically speaking this may not be feasible for every institution. It is still possible to regulate an objects’ exposure even without knowing the exact lux in every area of a room. Having a darkened room isn’t always an option, but one can ensure that the most sensitive objects be placed in areas with the least exposure to direct light, while the less sensitive ones can be allowed to be more exposed. For example, a stone column may be allowed to remain close to a window and subjected to daylight (as long as it’s not polychrome), while a feathered hat is better kept as far away as possible and in a darker area.
It is also possible adjust lux and time of exposure to adapt to exhibition constraints and reduce the damage done by light to the piece. For instance, an object exhibited at an intensity of 50 lux for over 100 hourswill benefit from the same long-term conservation as if it were exhibited for 100 lux for 50 hours.
As a rule, very sensitive objects(textiles, watercolours, feathers) can be exhibited at 50 lux, sensitive objects (oils and acrylics, furniture, panels) at 150 lux, and relatively insensitive ones (stone, metal) at300 lux. However, if the piece has undergone restoration treatments requiring adhesives, 50 lux would be more desirable regardless of its sensitivity in order to reduce the yellowing and weakening of the adhesive.
When choosing artificial lighting it is important to be aware that different types of lamps emit different levels of lux and heat, and even UV rays. While halogen and tungsten lamps are not recommended as they give off higher temperatures, especially in small closed spaces like display cases, LED ones are acceptable as they usually emit relatively little heat and UV rays while showcasing the object’s colours.
Temperatureand Relative Humidity
Ideally, collections should be kept in temperatures of under 20ºC. This isn’t always achievable though, especially in exhibit rooms where visitors need to feel comfortable if they are to enjoy their time there and return. When choosing the room’s temperature bear in mind that the higher the temperature the quicker objects degrade, with the phenomenon of oxidation quickening after 25ºC. This is therefore the absolute maximum, and even just a couple of degrees lower will be greatly beneficial to collections while still being acceptable to visitors.
Relative humidity, commonly expressed as RH, in preventive conservation is the percentage of waterin the air (vapour) at a given temperature and pressurein relation to the maximum amount of vapour that could be there at that same temperature and pressure. Itsraterises in colder temperatures and lowers in warmer ones. This helps institutions regulate the relative humidity without having to use dehumidifiers.
Generally, it is considered that a relative humidity of under 35% is dry while one over 65% is humid. The ideal, for objects without specific needs, is thus somewhere between 35% and 65%, depending on the materials involved.
Variations in temperature and relative humidity can be slow, for example when they are due to seasonal changes, or sudden if they are linked to daily actions such as leaving windows and doors open. These fluctuations cause damages (cracks, deformations, corrosion), so it’s important to control them as much as possible.
As warm air can contain more moisture than cold air, a too abrupt transition from cold to warm can cause condensation on the surface of objects, which must be avoided as it causes corrosion of metals and leads to mould growth. Mould growth can also be triggered when the relative humidity is above 70%, especially if there is little air circulation.
If an object has been exposed to a certain temperature and relative humidity for some timeand needs to be moved to an area with different levels, it is important to let it adjust and adaptgradually. This can be achieved by using well insulated cases to create a transitional environment for the objects and by not imposing constraints on hygroscopic materials. Objects can thus acclimatize naturally to changes in humidity by expanding or contracting, adapting to their new environment.
Every-day collections management
Although ensuring that a collection’s inventory isup to date is critical, most of the work regarding a collection’s management happens at the preventive conservation level.
When setting up an exhibit’s space, either permanent or temporary, it is important to identify areas that could be considered as “at risk” and make the proper adjustments: windows and walls facing the outside are more susceptible to light and temperature fluctuations than those facing the inside of the building and therefore one should avoid placing the more fragile objects in that area. Basements on the other hand, though dark and cool and therefore in theory good storage areas,tend to be both too damp and one of the first places to suffer from floods and pipe damages, they should thus never be used to store collections.
It is also important to identifyany sudden changes in temperature and humidity that can easily occur in a closed space. These can be affected by suddenly turning on the heating in the winter instead of ensuring a progressive rise in the temperature over several weeks, which would reduce daily fluctuations, or opening windows to lower the temperature, which should never be done if possible.Other risks are the consequences of commonplace activities and occurrences: a group of people arriving in a closed roomraises the temperature and humidity in their general area and during the night temperaturesmay drastically lower. Institutions should plan and adjust accordingly.
Museums that closefor the winter months but still have exceptional openings for specific eventsshould be careful as this can cause the temperature, and consequently the relative humidity, to vary abruptly. It is necessary to try to maintain stable temperatures even during seasonal closures.
Collection managers should also be careful of seasonal changes in temperature. Thetransition from summer to winter should be as slow as possible for the pieces. To ensure this is so, one can gradually turn the heating back on in autumn and, if the building is equipped with a central humidification system, spread the changeover from summer to winter set points over several weeks to minimize daily fluctuations.
In storage areas it is important to avoid clutter and stacking of storage cases. They should all have an adequate space between them (or between objects should they not be in cases), to allow for air to pass and prevent friction between themwhen they are being handled. The same should be done between storage shelves. Additionally, there should be at least 10 cm distance between the floor and the bottom shelf to facilitate room maintenance and prevent damage in case of light flooding.
All objects and storage cases should be clearly identified with the inventory numbers of the objects they contain. This will make it easier to find the pieces without having to manipulate the cases, as each manipulation is a source of risk (cracking, bumping, falling and breaking).
As becomes apparent from all the different aspects mentioned above, collections management encompasses a broad range of knowledge and specialities. It is important that teams be made up of professionals from different fields (keepers of collections, conservators, shippers) so that the collection may benefit from the combined expertise. Admittedly, this may not be possible in smaller institutions with limited budgets, in which case calling on third-party advice is advisable.
To summarize, the most important information to remember when managing a collection is that some simple actions will have positive long-term effects on their conservation.
About the author:
Since 2004, Renata Kaminker has worked in cultural heritage preservation on behalf of public institutions, international NGOs and private businesses. After several years as a conservator for national collections and historical monuments, she was in charge of monitoring and reporting on emergency situations for cultural heritage and responsible for projects related to the fight against illicit trafficking.
Renata participated in the definition of strategic policies for the institutions she worked for, as well as managed several simultaneous international projects alongside multidisciplinary teams all over the world.
Since 2018, she has been consulting for public and private institutions and collectors on collections management, due diligence and provenance issues, and training of staff.