Preventative Conservation through Environmental Monitoring

Preventative Conservation through Environmental Monitoring

Why is environmental monitoring important? Temperature and Relative humidity have a big influence over the life of a photography. For example, if the storage area is cold that decreases the rate of decay. Or if the RH is high the materials, like gelatin, will expand or destabilize. There’s also the risks of mold growth, pollutants reacting, hydrolysis, and dyes fading. Because all of these things can severely damage the collections and archives, we don’t want too much fluctuation in temperature and RH.

It would seem the simple solution would be to strictly adhere to what kind of environment the objects need, but what’s the purpose of preservation if no one will ever see it because it stays in a freezer. Part of a conservator’s job is to find a balance between preservation and accessibility.

Have you ever noticed that museum lighting can be really dim? Most likely that was a recommendation from a conservator to ensure preservation. Conservators have to assess the photographs that the curator wants to display and decide if they need treatment, how close can the light source be, what illuminance the photo can handle, and how they should be hung (sink mat, hinged, etc). Because light is cumulative, the photograph can only be exposed to a light source for so long before light starts to damage it. To increase the length of the photo’s ability to stay on display, conservators can set the illuminance lower than what might be pleasing to the gallery goer’s eye. As a result, the photograph is both stabile and accessible to the public.


This is all stuff that I am not qualified to make assessments for (yet) so my job this week was to collect the environment data from several places in the CCP. It was kind of like a scavenger hunt. I had to find the data loggers in each space, like the archive vaults and gallery. These HOBO data loggers collect information on temperature and relative humidity every 15 minutes. The temp/RH reader on the far right in the image above is what would be used for spot checks in a microenvironment, like exhibit cases. Some places, like exhibition prep and the Laura Volkerding Study Center, I didn’t expect to have to be monitored but it makes sense. Anywhere an object is going needs to meet certain requirements for its protection otherwise it could be damaged.


Using the HOBO data shuttle, I downloaded 4 months worth of data from each data logger. Jae taught me how to use HOBOware and eClimateNotebook to process and present data from the data loggers. I learnt that environmental monitoring is not only good for the CCP’s own collection and archives, but is also required by many museums before they loan their objects. Which is why I used eClimateNotebook. ECN allowed me to take the data from the HOBO system and make it into a pdf with separate graphs for temperature and RH, a data point table, and separate graphs for the percentage of time the temp. and RH were within range of their ideal. This format is less intimidating and a lot cleaner looking than HOBOware.


Lastly, I also learnt about the processes to make wheat paste and gelatin for treatment. The basic recipe for wheat paste is deionized water with Zen Shofu Wheat starch, heated and mixed constantly in a double boiler. For gelatin, the gelatin crystals should soak in deionized water until they lose their flat edges and become rounded. Then heat them to make them burst and, like wheat paste, keep mixing until it becomes the consistency needed. It was kind of like watching a cooking show but in a lab.


2 thoughts on “Preventative Conservation through Environmental Monitoring

    1. Wheat paste and gelatin are most commonly used as adhesives to fix the binder (albumin, gelatin, or collodion) layer. For example, I described how high relative humidity can expand the gelatin layer. Well the opposite can happen too and the gelatin layer shrinks. In situations like these, the binder layer starts to detach and curl up from the baryta and/or paper layers. The conservator goes in with the gelatin and relaxes the binder layer back down without adding any foreign materials.

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