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Thursday, May 29 • 10:30am - 10:50am
(Opening Session) Precaution, proof, and pragmatism: 150 years of expert debate on the museum environment

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This presentation will open with a brief historical overview of how the concept of the 'museum environment' has been understood, debated and ultimately absorbed into professional practice since the late 19th century when it was first recognized as a significant factor in the preservation of collections. The authors will review the milestone moments of technical research and experience and will examine in particular the power of expert voices– of conservators, facility managers, engineers, directors– to shape and alter the debate about the museum environment.

The main focus of the presentation will be the radical shift that has occurred in recent years not only in the nature of the debate on the museum environment, but who has instigated it. Seeking universally-accepted guidelines to facilitate loans while also meeting sustainability targets, museum directors have challenged long-held environmental norms espoused by the conservation community. The shift in the debate has placed the burden of proof on the defenders of stringent environmental targets, rather than on those committed to meeting sustainability targets.

This challenge has seen a range of responses from the conservation field internationally. Several professional bodies representing conservators at the national level have launched discussions and taken positions. However, in some areas of the profession there remains a distinct sense of uneasiness and emotion on the matter of new environmental parameters, which some see as having implications both for the safety of objects and for the integrity of the profession. For this reason, the conservation field has seen the environmental debate shift inward. But where are the main voices in this debate, and what are they saying?

The authors will look at how the field internationally is currently dividing itself on this issue and why– and how experience, perceptions, and uncertainty appear to influence and entrench positions. They will describe the three distinct positions on the 'museum environment' that have emerged, each reflecting a different view of risk: precautionary safety; proven safety; and pragmatic risk management.

Absent irrefutable scientific evidence that would justify change, proponents of the precautionary safety stance adhere to the narrowly defined set of environmental parameters which the museum field has followed for decades, seeing it as the only confirmed path to unconditional safety.

The proven safety stance argues that the conditions actually maintained by institutions have often ranged outside a narrowly defined climatic band, with very few instances of noticeable damage; these de facto conditions are therefore apparently safe.

The pragmatic risk management stance argues that the preservation goal is the minimization of loss due to many causes, and that for each cause, such as an incorrect climate, the decision-maker needs to know the quantitative interrelation between the intensity of the hazard (climate fluctuations), the damage caused (cracks), and the cost of controlling the hazard (financial, environmental, social). Although the proven safety stance can find a place within this perspective, pragmatic risk management actually goes further, recommending that resources go to reduction of the biggest risks, which may in fact not be climate fluctuations.

The authors will expand upon these positions and ask their colleagues to consider their viability in light of current challenges, including the desire for more sustainable practices and for the profession to speak forcefully, but with consensus, on a fundamental area of its responsibility.

avatar for Foekje Boersma

Foekje Boersma

Senior Project Specialist, Getty Conservation Institute
Foekje Boersma is a Senior Project Specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. From 2009 until 2013, she worked at the National Archives of the Netherlands, where she was responsible for external projects. Between 2006 and 2009 she had worked at the Getty Conservation Institute... Read More →

avatar for James Druzik

James Druzik

Senior Scientist, Getty Conservation Institute
James Druzik is a Senior Scientist at The Getty Conservation Institute since 1985. His research interests have focused on preventive conservation including the origin and fate of anthropogenic oxidant air pollutants and particulates in museum environments and their control technologies... Read More →
avatar for Kathleen Dardes

Kathleen Dardes

Head, Collections, Getty Conservation Institute
Kathleen Dardes is Head of Education at the Getty Conservation Institute, where she has worked since 1988, first in the Training Program, then in Field Projects.  She has held her current position since 2007.  As Head of Education she is responsible for overseeing the Institute’s... Read More →

Thursday May 29, 2014 10:30am - 10:50am PDT
Grand Ballroom A-C