State of the nation

Julia Fein Azoulay reports on revelations about the number of collections in the United States that are stored in terrible conditions
Julia Fein Azoulay
A recent sweeping study of the conditions under which an estimated 4.8 billion artefacts are stored at 30,000 American institutions has revealed some shocking results. It found that millions of rare artefacts in museums and libraries across America are slowly disintegrating because of improper storage and conditions that lack the necessary basic environmental controls.

A Public Trust at Risk: the Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America's Collections was conducted by Washington DC-based Heritage Preservation, the national institute for conservation in the US. The report, which was published in December, is the first comprehensive survey into the condition and preservation needs of US collections.

One quarter of the collections surveyed were said to be vulnerable to dangerous fluctuations in temperature, humidity and light, and 65 per cent of the collections had already sustained noticeable damage.

Adding to the crisis is the fact that only one in five American institutions has paid staff that are dedicated to maintaining stored materials. Eighty per cent have no plan for saving their artefacts in the event of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, which can run the gamut from Hurricane Katrina to commonplace events such as floods from broken water pipes or fire.

The study concluded that hazards aren't restricted to disasters, natural or otherwise. The survey said that 'providing a safe environment for these fragile objects is a fundamental responsibility of every institution' and that 'capital projects should give priority to protecting collections', but found that inappropriate or inadequate storage habits often create the most potentially destructive risks of all.

The report observes that as safe as it seems to pack collections away, storage facilities can present unanticipated hazards. 'Many materials are stored in basements, attics or warehouses that do not have proper environmental controls or are at risk for flooding or overheating. Fragile items are often crammed into drawers or crowded onto shelves where condition problems go undetected and retrieval is risky. Improper containers leach acids and chemicals into their contents, slowly destroying them.'

The report concludes that collections must be kept in a proper environment, whether they are exhibited in a gallery, available to researchers in a reading room, or held in storage. 'Providing a safe environment for these fragile objects is a fundamental responsibility of every institution. Capital projects should give priority to protecting collections.'

The problem is often not the result of misplaced priorities or lack of awareness of the critical importance of appropriate storage conditions and trained staff, but of a painful lack of funds.

The results of the study, which covered the gamut of museums, libraries and archives - from large institutions to modest local history societies staffed by volunteers - may be misleading.

For example, a one-room schoolhouse in a small town in the American midwest cannot necessarily maintain the staff necessary to organise and oversee proper storage and preservation measures for minor historical documents such as letters and schoolwork.

But as one preservation expert says: 'One of the things you never know is what's going to be important in the future. There was a time when women's studies artefacts were low priority. Now we understand how significant they are. So conservation and preservation should really be a priority across the board.'

Mimi Gaudieri is the executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which represents 180 of the largest art museums in the US and Canada. She says conservation issues are a priority and that larger museums are fortunate enough to have the necessary funding to maintain conservators and other trained professionals.

'Unfortunately, many of the smaller museums across the country face an uphill battle in terms of securing the funding necessary to take appropriate measures,' Gaudieri says.

Some may not understand how important these measures are, while others may not be aware of the extent to which their collections are at risk.

Consider, for example, the New Mexico Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. It houses archaeological materials dating from 9,600 BC up to the 20th century. In March 2004 an off-site storage facility experienced an unexpected hot water pipe burst: all 1,400 boxes of collections stored on the lower shelves of the facility were flooded by hot water. This went unchecked for almost 24 hours, until the broken pipe was found.

The brutal truth is that across the US, 80 per cent of institutions do not have paid staff dedicated to collections care, while 71 per cent need additional training and expertise. Funding limitations, oversight or the apparent dearth of trained, professional conservators in the museum field are among the reasons for this, according to the report.

Conservation training programmes do exist. Although the profession may fall below the radar for many university graduates, there are five graduate programmes (all highly competitive and with limited enrolment) in the US dedicated to the education and training of conservators, says Debra Hess Norris, the chairwoman of the Department of Art Conservation at the University of Delaware.

Hess Norris, who is also the chairwoman of Heritage Preservation, says that preservation is a high priority with the American museum community - closely linked with museum education, interpretation and access.

Given both the awareness of the importance of conservation and preservation and the ready availability of training, the results of the Heritage Health Index are particularly puzzling.

'Some of the findings were not a surprise, such as the need for storage, staffing, and funding,' admits Kristen Laise, the director of the Heritage Preservation study. 'However, we were struck with the extent of the issues.

'For example, more than a quarter of collecting institutions do not have environmental controls to protect their collections from damage from temperature, relative humidity and light. It is also troubling that in the most recently completed fiscal year, 68 per cent of institutions had annual preservation budgets of $3,000 or less. Thirty per cent had zero.'

The latter is especially surprising as the question included a broad definition of what to include in preservation budgets: staffing, supplies, equipment, surveys, treatment, preservation reformatting, commercial binding, consultants, contractors, and other preservation costs.

Hess Norris says the American museum community is working to secure external support from regional and national foundations; corporations; local, state, and federal agencies; membership organisations; and the public: 'Enhancing public conservation awareness is essential, as is the need for endowment funding to support key conservation positions, staff training, preservation supplies, and equipment in perpetuity.'

It is interesting to note that while historical documentation and artefacts fall lower on the scale of priorities, art museums are the best protected. Oil paintings and other works of art are particularly valued by the public who are therefore happy to fund the preservation and conservation of works of art. According to the survey, very few art museum collections were in 'urgent need'.

The conservation department at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH), for example, has nine staff members, six of whom are fully trained conservators; two are conservation technicians who are supervised by conservators, and one is an administrative assistant.

In addition, three contract conservation technicians participate on projects supported by grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Save America's Treasures (a programme created during the Clinton administration).

Wynne Phelan, the conservation director at the Houston museum, says the fact that it has a conservation department indicates the high importance that the board of directors attaches to conservation and preservation. 'Many important collecting institutions do not support even one full-time conservator,' he says.

'Our departmental budget varies, but can be as high as $900,000 and that does not include the staff that frame, prepare artwork for storage, and handle the artwork. Neither does it reflect the cost for museum quality climate control for five museum structures including two house museums.'

The MFAH is typical of the larger, better-endowed American art museums. According to Phelan, the disaster plan is upgraded annually. 'All art is elevated off the ground; the most vulnerable collections are kept on the second floor. We also have a contract for portable climate control equipment,' he says.

'I think it would be difficult to have a plan that could adequately address devastating events [such as those] in New Orleans. Of course we are trying to help New Orleans, but they are not yet organised to have people come to help. The infrastructure - power, internet, mail - was lacking. It is only this week that we were notified where we could sign up to volunteer. Fortunately the New Orleans Museum of Art sustained very little loss, but the historical collections have suffered.'

Phelan speculates that the situation is the same in Europe and the UK. 'Large government-funded institutions generally have good funding for conservation, while smaller ones usually do not,' he says.

'I think the Brits and Europeans have more government funding and less support from individuals, but that is changing. Funding plays a key role in addressing this crisis. The federal funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and IMLS has been inadequate for over a decade. Most of our public does not realise that we receive little or no support from the city or state.'

Phelan also bemoans the fact that corporate giving has fallen off. 'Perhaps tax codes need to be adjusted to encourage more private support,' he says. 'Small gifts from individuals are important to the MFAH and probably account for 10 per cent of our annual budget.'

Overall it's a depressing picture but, as Phelan says, there is no easy fix: 'We try to have a certain number of programmes that educate our public about conservation activities. I think efforts to educate the public need to go hand in hand with fundraising.'

Julia Fein Azoulay is a freelance journalist

Trouble in store

The Heritage Health Index included archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, and scientific research collections. Data includes the following:

27 per cent of books and bound volumes held by museums are in need or urgent need of treatment and 24 per cent are in unknown condition.

28 per cent of photographic collections (does not include microfilm/microfiche) held by museums are in need or urgent need of treatment and 21 per cent are in unknown condition.

23 per cent of art objects held by museums are in need or urgent need of treatment and 26 per cent are in unknown condition.

29 per cent of historic/ethnographic objects held by museums are in need or urgent need of treatment and 28 per cent are in unknown condition.

27 per cent of natural science specimens held in museums are in need or urgent need of treatment and 9 per cent are in unknown condition.

In terms of preservation activities, museums tended to be doing slightly better than other institutions in providing environmental control, security, staffing, and funding for preservation. But while museums led in having a current survey of the general condition of collections, the figure was only 37 per cent of the total.

Regarding disaster planning, museums are only slightly below the national average of 80 per cent (their figure is 78 per cent). This places 574 million items or 60 per cent of US museum collections at risk. In some areas, such as cataloguing of collections, museums lag behind libraries and archives significantly

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