There are few topics likely to induce an eyes-glazed-over response more quickly than the words ‘environmental standards’ for heritage collections. I am pleased to report that the just published ‘Specification for environmental conditions for cultural collections (BSI: PAS: 198)’ marks a significant departure from the usual, and is well worth a read.
The National Archives has taken a lead in developing a new environmental standard for the cultural sector, in part-response to a statement issued by the UK National Museum Directors’ Conference that, ‘museums need to approach long-term collection care in a way that does not require excessive use of energy, while recognising the duty of care to collections.’ There was general agreement that it is time to utilise the research undertaken in the last ten years, and to shift policies for environmental control, loan conditions and guidance given to architects and engineers from the prescriptive advice to something based on the sensitivity of the objects, the expected life of the collection, and local priorities. This isn’t about relaxing environmental standards, its about making informed decisions for a collection.
So what’s new? This work takes a risk-based rather than a purely prescriptive approach, in recognition that all collections have different requirements. Users are asked to consider the sensitivity of their collections in relation to temperature, relative humidity, light and pollution and to determine specific environmental parameters accordingly. The specification recognises that a balance needs to be struck between the often conflicting demands of the use of the collection, its preservation and energy economy.
For the first time, this specification makes explicit references to the ‘expected lifetime of a collection’ i.e. the length of time over which the useable life of an item can be prolonged, a concept not often discussed as it is uncomfortable (even heretical to some). Expected lifetime also depends on the resources it wishes to invest, but more importantly, it helps to decide where to invest them.
One of the goals of this project was to make explicit, where possible, the scientific research evidence underpinning the recommended parameters which has highlighted the research gaps. Where evidence is lacking, we have a tremendous opportunity to work with the scientific community to fill these gaps, which in turn will lead to better environmental standards, which is good for everyone.