As Energy Costs Bite, Museums Rethink a Conservation Credo

The idea that art must be displayed in a climate-controlled environment is relatively new, said Southwick, a former stone conservator at the Vatican Museums. Masterpieces used to hang in unheated churches or palaces, she said. Some of the first museums to adopt climate-control technologies were in the United States, with the Yale University Art Gallery installing a steam-powered heating system in 1874.

Temperature and humidity controls became commonplace after World War II, Southwick added, especially after conservators at the British Museum and the National Gallery, in London, published a series of influential books prescribing the conditions to protect masterpieces in that chilly, damp city. Soon, those ideals “were taken out of context and applied everywhere,” Southwick said, adding that they eventually became the standard for museum loans.

Now, museums in Australia and Nigeria need to meet the same standards as museums in London and Pittsburgh to borrow works, Southwick said, even though the climates in those places are totally different.

Andreas Burmester, a retired director of the Doerner Institute, a scientific organization that conserves paintings owned by the state of Bavaria, in Germany, said that scientists and conservators had been debating for decades whether climate standards in museums could be safely loosened. Ten years ago, there was resistance to change, he said — including from himself. “My motto was ‘stable is safe,’” Burmester said. Today, he added, “the world’s changed” and conservators recognize that museums need to save money to cope with high energy prices.

The Guggenheim Bilbao is on track to save 20,000 euros (or about $21,800) a month, since it decided to allow a slightly wider range of temperatures and humidity levels, said Daniel Vega, one of the museum’s deputy directors. Since October, the Guggenheim has been celebrating its 25th anniversary with an exhibition of works from its own collection — meaning its galleries are now free from loan items. It took the opportunity to roll out the new standards in every gallery in the museum.

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