Autumn 2003 Issue 45
Climate monitoring of objects for the 'Gothic: Art for England' exhibition
The 'Gothic: Art for England 1400–1547' Exhibition presented some interesting challenges concerning the environment. The objects being borrowed for the exhibition have come from many diverse institutions, including churches and cathedrals. They were spread widely over the country and in some cases from quite remote locations. It was likely that the range of climates experienced by these objects differed accordingly, but very little in the way of records of previous monitoring existed, except for anecdotal evidence of localised events.
As part of the Museum’s duty of care it was essential to obtain historical climate information on these objects. This information, coupled with condition checks, would be used to formulate an environmental strategy for the display of the objects in the exhibition that would greatly reduce any risk of further damage to environmentally-sensitive material once they were in the care of the Museum.
A monitoring programme was initiated, in conjunction with the Exhibitions Department, whereby all churches and cathedrals lending objects would have their climate monitored to ascertain the extent of seasonal climate variations. Dataloggers were purchased for this purpose and began to be deployed in early 2001. Where resources allowed, it was planned to obtain one complete year’s worth of data, therefore determining longer-term seasonal effects as well as short-term fluctuations.
As results began to be collated, it became apparent that many objects were experiencing climates markedly different from the V&A’s environment. For example the doors of St Alban’s Cathedral (Figure 1) showed extreme fluctuations in relative humidity (RH) (Figure 2). In conjunction with Nigel Bamforth, Senior Furniture Conservator, and external bodies such as the Cathedrals Fabric Commission, environmental strategies were formulated for these objects to take into account their present environmental conditions and those which could be achieved during the exhibition. Although the exhibition space is air-conditioned, special provision has been made for objects coming from more consistently damp conditions, with the objective of preventing excessive environmentally-induced dimensional realignment. These objects were gradually acclimatised to museum conditions over a number of weeks and kept at a slightly higher RH during the exhibition by using Artsorb, a customconditioned buffering media.
This exercise has required the communication and co-operation of a diverse group of people such as vicars and other church custodians, the Cathedrals Fabric Commission and the Exhibitions and Conservation Departments at the V&A. Although some objects are coming from quite extreme climates and may have been affected by these in the past, this work has ensured that the measures being taken during their period at the V&A will greatly reduce the risk of further damage. Looking ahead, the implementation of OCEAN (object centred environmental analysis network) within the Museum means the possibility will exist for monitoring remote sites such as the churches and cathedrals mentioned above and viewing data in near real time. This will greatly assist in the planning of environmental management strategies for future exhibitions.