Art and the Tropical Climate – Part 2

Works of art from the National Gallery in London in storagte at the Manod Quarry in Wales during World War II

Works of art from the National Gallery in London in storagte at the Manod Quarry in Wales during World War II

Here is part two of the article on tropical art conservation by Joelle Salkey. The final section of the article includes tips for private collectors on how to safeguard their collections.

As fatalistic as this article has made tropical RH concerns out to be, with proper risk management and good housekeeping most crises can be avoided. However, in cases where the heritage object is delicate or fragile, good housekeeping may not be sufficient to ensure the object’s preservation. In such cases specific knowledge of the materials and techniques is required to aid its preservation. Tropical collections differ greatly from other collections around the world in that objects in such collections tend to consist of more organic materials, and a greater majority is classified as ethnographic objects. Problems can occur when the specific characteristics of the objects and their materials, as well as the conditions under which they are kept, are ignored.

In January 2014 American curator Cash Brown blogged about her experience at the National Museum in Myanmar[1]. Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate. Despite a fairly well maintained exterior of the museum, Brown noticed severe damages to most of the works from the collection which were not endemic to the region. She noted that works of photography, works on paper and oil paintings showed signs of degradation ranging from mild to severe, while the musical instruments, lacquer ware, wooden, stone and ceramic artefacts fared better. The museum objects that were made from locally found materials are chemically acclimatized to the conditions found in Myanmar. Those that were not native to the climate were ravaged by high humidity, and fluctuating temperatures made possible by the lack of proper climate control and supervision.

The National Museum in Myanmar

The National Museum in Myanmar

This phenomenon of acclimatization was first documented in London, when in preparation for WWII the National Gallery in England decided to secure their collections in limestone quarries in Wales. After the war, the collections were inspected and all found to be in good condition. They were removed from the temperature and humidity-controlled quarries and then re- introduced into the museum environment[2]. This relocation was observed to have a disastrous effect on the condition of the collection, as various artworks began to rapidly exhibit various forms of distress and deterioration after relocation. After some investigation it was concluded that the works of the collection had acclimatized to the constant environment presented in the quarries, which differed greatly from the inconsistent museum climate. It is important to note that the museum’s exterior environment plays an equal role in the stability of the interior environment and also has to be factored into preventive conservation and risk management controls.

Severe disasters pose a serious threat to the conservation of artefacts as they are often unpredictable or unpreventable. In the case of earthquakes, measures can be taken only after the catastrophic event has already occurred, although proper mounting and storage practices can help to prevent damage. Hurricanes and tropical cyclones form over tropical waters, in areas of high humidity, light winds and warm sea surface temperatures (26.5 degrees celsius and greater)[3]. There has been a very pronounced increase in the number of tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic since the late-1980s. This trend has been identified by scientists as a side-effect of greenhouse warming.[4]

Flood damage at a Chelsea gallery after hurricane Sandy

Flood damage at a Chelsea gallery after hurricane Sandy

The most common types of damage caused by storms and hurricanes involve flooding, and structural damage caused by the increased wind pressure. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Damage-Potential Scale[5] is used to determine the potential destruction caused by a storm in accordance with its assessed strength, and has become a very useful tool for risk management of tropical collections. According to the scale, if a storm is classified as Category 1, some minor physical damage to shrubbery and property can be expected. If risk management is applied accordingly, a collection can be protected against the increased rainfall, ensuring all leaks and structural infractions are corrected and secured.

As the severity of the storm increases, the risk management plan must become more specific to the types of collections, whether wood, metal or composite collections. For example, when faced with a Category 4 system, it can be expected that the risk of flooding will increase, as city runoffs are unable to contain the volume of water caused by heavy rainfall and storm surges. This then indicates that the potential damage to the collection by water damage is potentially higher than that of earthquake damage. All measures should be taken to elevate the collection or move them to a higher and more secure location. Hydroscopic objects should be given priority above non-hydroscopic works. They should be kept in conditions as close as possible to their accustomed climate in the museum environment. The instinct to cover all objects in plastic should be avoided as this could create localized climates within the plastic, and encourage mold growth.

Once risk management procedures are put into place and followed accurately the potential longevity of a collection should be ensured. The challenge is now to distinguish what environmental conditions and risk management procedures work with the tropical environment to protect tropical collections. This calls for a greater understanding of the risks posed to the region and the creation of effective disaster plans for the works found in the tropical collection.

Protecting Works of Art in the Home

In the home, disaster and risk management plans are just as effective as in the museum setting. While the average art owner or collector might not have access to sophisticated environmental monitoring equipment or HVAC controlled environments, he or she can assess the damage potential to any work of art and make provisions to ensure its safety. There are several agents of deterioration common in any household setting that should be given attention. As mentioned extensively in this article, temperature and RH are considered agents of deterioration, however in a home setting there are often other agents that take priority over fluctuations in climate.

In preventive conservation literature there are ten identified agents of deterioration: theft, physical forces, water, light and UV damage, neglect, temperature, RH, fire, pollution and biological attacks. A domestic collection might face a higher threat of damage by way of theft or physical impact than a museum collection. While fire and water damage are more obvious forms of deterioration, neglect is actually the most common and effective agent of deterioration found in the home. Even occasional attention to the artwork is beneficial, making it easier to notice damage, potential threats and to carry out the necessary corrections. However, too often art collections blend into domestic environments and are forgotten until damage has occurred or the collection has been completely destroyed.

Safeguarding a domestic collection requires some simple recommendations. Some helpful tips are:

  1. Identifying your collection. Knowing the makeup of the work of art is crucial to protecting it. For example, if a valuable sculpture is made from plaster, its location on an open terrace or on a lawn will ensure its destruction in a short amount of time. Plaster is very porous and dissolves in water and humid environments unless covered in a protective coating.
  2. Finding safe locations for your collection. Entry ways and areas of high traffic are difficult locations to display works of art and should generally be kept clear. Paintings, especially delicate watercolours, should be hung away from direct sunlight, as light can fade the work over time.
  3. Knowing the environmental risks and preparing for them. As we are in the hurricane season, a family disaster plan should be extended to precious valuables and works of art. Once a safe room has been determined, paintings should be stacked and stored at an elevated height of about 3ft from the floor.
  4. Creating a cleaning regime. Make a cleaning schedule and follow it systematically. Gently clean all surfaces with a microfibre cloth and avoid vigorous mechanical or chemical cleaning where possible (however, leave the cleaning of art works that show signs of deterioration, such as flaking, to professionals)
  5. Being observant. Look out for issues in the work, such as cracking, flaking or bleaching. Once these issues are identified, remove the work from its setting to a safe location, and lastly…
  6. Contact a professional. Once damage has been identified, it’s best not to attempt to fix the work on your own. If the damaged work is truly valuable, a botched repair might decrease its value and affect its longevity.

To conclude, preventive conservation and risk management strategies are effective methods of ensuring the safety of tropical collections. Little can be done to control the external tropical climate, and controlling the internal environment through HVAC systems might not be financially feasible. In such cases, rather than focusing on climate control, one can concentrate on other risks posing a threat to the collection. Simple tasks, such as regular cleaning and designating a secure location for artworks, can go a long way in ensuring that such objects can be enjoyed by many generations to come.

NOTES

[1] Brown C. Myanmar Time Warp, http://cashbrown.org/tag/art-artefacts/ (April 2014)
[2] Lambert S, The Early History of Preventive Conservation in Great Britain and the United States (1850–1950) », CeROArt [En ligne], 9 | 2014, mis en ligne le 22 janvier 2014, consulté le 28 avril 2014. URL : http://ceroart.revues.org/3765 (October 2013)
[3] Graham S. Riebeck H, Hurricanes: The greatest storms on Earth, November 2006 http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/Hurricanes/hurricanes_1.php (April 2014)
[4]Vecchi G. Knutson T. Historical Changes in Atlantic Hurricane and Tropical Storms http://www.gfdl.noaa.gov/historical-atlantic-hurricane-and-tropical-storm-records (May 2014)
[5] The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/pdf/sshws.pdf (July 2015)
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