Illustrative photo – Exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci's works in the Louvre Museum in Paris, on the picture is the oil painting The Holy Family with Saint Anne.
London – Since the first museums were created in the 18th century, one of their main roles has been to protect works of art. In the not too distant past, many museums created teams to ensure that old master paintings don't deteriorate, iron sculptures don't rust and wooden artifacts don't mold, writes The New York Times (NYT).
Many Western museums have thus installed expensive and complex systems for controlling internal conditions in their premises to help protect works of art. Among these energy-intensive technologies are control devices, air conditioners and dehumidifiers. Often unbeknownst to visitors, these machines run 24 hours a day.
However, as awareness grows about the environmental impact of operating such facilities, an increasing number of institutions are rethinking their policies regarding the conservation of works of art. And since energy prices rose to dizzying heights after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some of the largest museums in Europe began to take action.
Last year, some well-known institutions, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or the Dutch Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam , watered down the standards and reconfigured their equipment to allow for greater fluctuations in temperature and humidity in some exhibition spaces. This saved them thousands of euros per month. Museums have been testing the changes for several months to make sure they don't put their artworks at risk.
The old rules remain in force in the premises where the works are on loan. Contracts with other museums or private collectors contain provisions according to which the climatic conditions in the galleries must be under strict control.
According to Caitlin Southwick, who founded the sustainable museology company Ki Culture, loans follow rules set by conservative, risk-averse restorers and insurance companies. But the idea that artworks must be displayed in temperature-controlled spaces is relatively new, says Southwick, who has worked as a restorer of stone artifacts in the Vatican Museums. The masterpieces usually hung in unheated churches and palaces, he adds. Among the first museums in the United States to implement indoor climate control technology was the art gallery at Yale University, which introduced steam heating in 1874.
Temperature and humidity control became common in museums after World War II, Southwick adds. Conservators at London's British Museum and the National Gallery contributed to this, publishing influential manuals on the subject. Some of these ideas “were taken out of context and applied everywhere,” Southwick says, often becoming standards for museum loans. Currently, museums in Australia or Nigeria have to meet the same conditions as in London or Pittsburgh if they want to borrow works, although the climate in these places is completely different.
The former director of the Doerner Institute in Munich, Andreas Burmester, says that scientists and restorers have been debating for decades whether it is possible to relax the norms for climate in museums in a safe way. Even ten years ago, there was a lot of resistance to this, Burmester says, admitting that he was among those who were not in favor of change.
“I argued that what is stable is also safe,” he says. Nowadays, however, 'the world has changed' and restorers also recognize that museums must save and reduce high energy costs. The Doerner Institute deals with the preservation of the collections of paintings owned by Bavaria.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao should save up to 20,000 euros (roughly half a million CZK) a month, as it has decided to allow greater variance in temperature and humidity values air, said Daniel Vega, one of the museum's deputy directors. In October, the museum celebrated the 25th anniversary of its founding with an exhibition of works from its own collections, thanks to which it did not have loans in its premises. It used it to introduce new standards in all expositions.
The new rules will remain in the museum in the future. People who want to lend works to the museum must accept these rules or resign from the loan, says Vega. According to him, all those who lent their works to the upcoming exhibition about the painter Joan Miró were satisfied with the new rules. Only one European museum institution, which was supposed to send a painting by Oskar Kokoschka to an upcoming retrospective exhibition, insisted on stricter rules for the indoor climate. Unless the museum, whose name Vega did not want to mention, changes its position soon, the Guggenheim Museum will not display his work. “We will not compromise our firm position,” says Vega.
Some other museum organizations and governments are also beginning to act. In December, the British government, which is sometimes the insurer for state-funded museums, suspended the minimum temperature requirement for works covered by its insurance scheme. This is to help institutions on tight budgets save money during the cold season. According to a government spokesman, the suspension of the request, which will last until March 31, should not have “a negative impact on the collections or on loaned artefacts”. The Association of German Museums has urged its members to use air conditioning less when energy prices are high.
Southwick says that if electricity and gas prices remain high, more insurers and museums will follow suit. Five years ago, Southwick wanted museums to change their strict climate rules for the sake of the planet. But now, according to her, museums are changing for their own sake.