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Prevention is better than the cure

Sandra Smith
Head of Conservation

Valerie Blyth
Preventive Conservator, Science Section

Political agendas, public accountability, FuturePlan and a review of collection's storage are increasingly affecting the way the collections are displayed and the Museum sites are used. The Gershen Report highlighted the need for institutions to become more efficient1 ; for the Museum, this involves looking at the cost of running the site, using space most effectively for display and storage of collections with minimal overheads. Part of the Museum's response to the need to improve access to the collections is to increase the number of loans and touring exhibitions. The Museum's current environmental parameters are narrow. In light of the real-time information on gallery and storage conditions these need to be re-examined, to determine if they can be relaxed to aid loaning in the future.

The Museum is exploring ways to make the displays more attractive to a wider audience, to become more socially inclusive; using multimedia displays, removing barriers, placing objects on open display and improving the illumination of objects. Additionally, withdrawal of slow release Dichlorvos strips, Vapona™, has increased the risk of insect attack to the Museum's textile collections. An urgent review of the Insect Pest Management (IPM) strategy was therefore needed.2

Identifying realistic, workable and flexible standards for the object environment is a priority for the Department next year; ensuring that these standards can be achieved efficiently and economically are equally significant. In 2004 working groups were established to review existing and new policies, and create associated strategies to ensure that the Museum has appropriate and pragmatic object centred policies for:

  • temperature and humidity
  • light and UV
  • insect activity
  • dust and pollution
  • vibration and handling

The need to review storage in advance of the redevelopment of some on-site stores for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries highlighted a need for the creation of a new Preventive Conservation post. This was initially created as a six-month pilot to establish and maintain preventive conservation standards. Valerie Blyth is currently filling this post. The policies and strategies relating to dust, pollution, vibration and handling are still at an early stage of development, whilst those for temperature and relative humidity, light and insect pest management are more developed.

Object centred environmental analysis network (OCEAN) has provided an excellent insight into the Museum environment.3 Temperatures in summer and relative humidity in winter are regularly outside the parameters recommended for loan. The extremely dry winter conditions, caused by the heating system, have highlighted a need to manage the use of the building in order to make the environment more stable for the collections. By working with the Projects & Estates team, the overall Museum temperature has been lowered. This not only benefits the collections, public and staff but also reduces running costs. By using real-time environmental data, the Department is now able to consider the options for relaxing environmental parameters for the collections to realistically achievable levels. Solutions may lie in centralising environmentally sensitive collections and using local environmental control methods such as humidification/dehumidification.

Recent innovations with the use of Lightcheck, an early warning system for preventive conservation, is providing a more effective evaluation of the quantity of light received by a museum exhibit. Work is still needed to identify types of light sources, and innovative types of display which will create an acceptable balance between access and longevity of light sensitive material.4  We certainly want to provide a useful and meaningful viewing of objects as a poorly lit object has very little worth. Light dose is a powerful tool that the improved technologies can now support. Proximity sensors, light ramping or push button devices may offer acceptable solutions.

Since the dichlorvos strips were removed from the display cases and stores there have been two severe outbreaks of carpet beetle. A review of the Bug Committee was carried out and membership was increased to include representatives from all Museum departments. Working groups were established to look at the pest policy and effectiveness of the stategy, the system for data collection and analysis, and current storage projects including the relocation of the Theatre Museum archives. Insect pest risk zones have been categorised on the South Kensington site which will determine the level of monitoring and priorities for action. This project is a collaboration with our IPM consultant, David Pinniger.

As the Museum is adopting a mixed media display type and many of the stores are by geographical separation rather than material, this presents challenges with regard to the environment. The Storage Project Group has been set up with a brief to cost solutions to the Museum's storage requirements identifying short-term and long-term storage needs. The Preventive Conservator has advised on best and efficient practice for the many museum object moves required to facilitate the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries and other FuturePlan developments.

Introducing object centred policies and strategies to the Museum requires a team approach. All staff have a valuable role to play. Training is a key element to the success of the strategies that will ultimately be implemented. It is envisaged that staff will have pest awareness training as part of their induction course. Refresher courses are being considered for staff at all levels. Basic preventive conservation training is available as part of the Curatorial Development Programme. OCEAN training is accessible to staff to enable them to use the system. Object centred policies relating to the environment are increasingly important to the Museum to ensure a high standard of collection care. Ensuring that the working documents that underpin the policies are flexible, workable, realistic and pragmatic will be as important to their success as the training of Museum staff in order to implement them.


1.  Gershen, P., Gershen Report. 'The Independent Review 0f Public Sector Efficiency'. Crown Copyright
2.  Kingsley, H., Pinniger, D., Xavier-Rowe, A., & Winsor, P., 'Integrated Pest Management for Collections', Proceedings of 2001: A Space Odyssey, James & James (Science Publishers) Ltd (2001)
3.  Hancock, M., The OCEAN project at the V&A. 'V&A Conservation Journal' No 46, (2004)
4. Ashley-Smith, J., Derbyshire, A., & Pretzel, B., The continuing development of a practical lighting policy for works of art on paper and other object types at the V&A. 'ICOM-CC 13th Triennial meeting Rio de Janeiro', James & James (Science Publishers) Ltd (2002)