Preserving our history with technology: How temperature control can be used to protect artefacts

It can be hard to imagine that the item in the little glass case at the museum could be hundreds, thousands or perhaps even millions of years old. This item still survives for us to appreciate today after being made, held or used by people so long ago. It makes you wonder which of our modern-day objects that we take for granted may remain long after we are gone.

Artefacts represent a window to the past and their preservation is key to preserving our world history and knowledge. Stories of museum pieces and valuable works of art being destroyed due to human interference or natural causes are always upsetting to hear and whilst there is only so much that can be done to prevent damage over time, museums do have access to a range of technology to combat this.
Identifying the major causes of deterioration

According to research by The Smithsonian, the following factors represent the major causes of artefact deterioration: 

  • Theft and vandalism — self-explanatory, the mishandling or purposeful damage to artefacts and art can leave them irreparable. Physical force — from the obvious force of impact to vibrations and pressure, physical force can damage any museum artefact or artwork. This is why museums display their pieces in cases or behind designated barriers. Of course, this isn’t always fool-proof. For example, did you know Michelangelo’s David has a delicate flaw in its ankles? A slight shift in angle, a strong vibration from a train or footfall, or a natural disaster like an earthquake would send David tumbling. 
  • Neglect — forgotten artefacts in storage, poor record keeping, or simply not following process can cause artefacts to succumb to other deterioration factors on the museum’s list, such as… 
  • Fire — rather self-explanatory, fire can cause the utter destruction of an artefact, through burning or the resulting smoke damage. 
  • Water — leaks, floods, and damp wreak havoc on artefacts. 
  • Pollutants — gases and dirt can lead to the swift decay of certain artefacts. Chemicals in cleaning can also erode away materials. Even the oils on your hands can be harsh enough to pollute some delicate artefacts. 
  • Light — light damage can cause fading or cracking in some artefacts. 
  • Pests — a particular problem in taxidermy specimens or natural materials, pests won’t pause to consider the historical value of one textile from another before chowing down!

One of the most delicate causes of artefact deterioration, however, is a combination of humidity and temperature. When these two elements combine, they can accelerate the growth of mould, warping and the rate of decay considerably. Without adequate protection, the cost of artefact lost can be immeasurable, from a loss of monetary value to a loss of any physical record of that item.

A notable example of this is the Oxford Dodo, which holds the title of the most complete single dodo specimen in the world. All that has survived is the head and a foot thanks to an infestation noted in the specimen around 1755; feather mites are highlighted as the main culprit for devouring the taxidermy dodo’s torso, wings, and feathers. Preservation Equipment advises that a high humidity can encourage fungal growth and pests in natural materials; could better temperature and humidity controls have saved more of the last dodo specimen?

Pests are surely a problem, but the scale and rapidity of temperature and humidity’s effects on a collection cannot be understated. The Telegraph reported how, when the glass roof of the Natural History Museum was cleaned of around 150 years’ worth of dirt, it was quickly discovered that the gathered dirt and the decision to remove the solar reflective film from the glass had had unintended side effects. 

Temperatures in the museum have soared to 40°C and the humidity tumbled, and the artefacts and specimens are already suffering irreversible damage, the article reports. The skin of specimens is cracking and drying, fading as they are sun-bleached, and whale skeletons are also degrading as a result. The museum is not only looking into replacing the solar reflective film, but also at installing a new HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system to try and save the artefacts.
A worldwide issue

The problem is not restricted to the UK either — over in Denmark, the country faces losing many historical artefacts due to a rise in damp and mould growing in its museum storage areas, which are reported to lack air conditioning units. CPH Post commented that the museums are using old buildings such as barns or lofts to store the artefacts, which means they aren’t being protected by any level of temperature control. More than 70,000 items are at risk of being destroyed as a result of 118 buildings used for storage being marked as riddled with mould.

It’s clear that temperature and humidity must be closely monitored, for both artefacts and artwork on display and in storage. The optimum temperature is between 16°C and 20°C — though temperatures as low as 10°C probably won’t cause harm, the risk of condensation grows for anything below 10°C. In terms of humidity, the advised relative humidity is between 40% and 70%, to avoid drying out items or encouraging pest or fungal infestations. It has also been noted that rapid fluctuation in humidity can be problematic.

It’s important for museums, displays, or even home-stored collector’s artefacts to be supplied with an effective HVAC system. With this, temperatures and humidity can be monitored and controlled quickly, providing much-needed protection from the elements when it comes to artefacts and artwork.