Sustainable Spaces

In November, Museums and Galleries Services Queensland held a seminar on Galleries, Museums and Climate Change.

The guest speaker Judith Nesbitt, Head of National and International Partnerships, Tate Modern, talked about the challenges for the arts and heritage sector in balancing increasing energy prices with the demands of collection management at a time when climate change and resource availability is continually in the news.  She focussed on strategies implemented by the Tate Modern and explained relationships across many of the major international institutions working towards sustainable futures.

Judith’s address set the scene for more detailed discussions by Julian Bickersteth and Emrah Baki Ulas, both industry representatives with impressive track records in conservation and collections management. They talked specifically about the demands of appropriate lighting and air conditioning in museums addressing collection care and sustainable practice in the context of the latest research.

Dr Laura Fisher, from the National Institute for Experimental Arts, CoFA, UNSW rounded out the seminar program by discussing how the arts as an industry can position themselves as community leaders to change behaviour and influence green infrastructure development.

Such discussions are occurring in different forums across the arts and museums industry and, in part stem from the difficulty of maintaining gallery and museum environments best suited to the long-term preservation of the objects in collection. Australia, along with European institutions inherited the standard of the so-called ‘20/50 norm’. This refers to the preferred museum environment for display and storage being 20 – 22 Celsius and 50 percent relative humidity.


Robust research is required to address the possibility of ‘easing’ the environments while preserving object well-being.

The historical background behind these environmental settings is, in itself an interesting story. During the Blitz in London, the National Gallery stored their valuable collection (including the fragile Flemish panel collection) in a disused mine in Wales. The environment there was very stable and they noted on removing the works that almost no deterioration had occurred over the seven years of storage.

After assessing the environmental conditions of the mine (found to be 20/50) those settings became the golden rule for best practice collection preservation. Since then, major collecting institutions across the globe have unblinkingly attempted to replicate 20/50.

The current debate attempts to further explore these levels and determine their appropriateness in all countries and for all collections. Robust research is required to address the possibility of ‘easing’ the environments while preserving object well-being. Easing of these levels would provide many benefits, not least of all reduced costs for collecting institutions that spend millions on electricity bills in cooling, heating and air-conditioning to achieve 20/50.

More information about this topic can be found on the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) where an Environmental Taskforce is charged with determining appropriate environmental levels for Australia.

As a result of the seminar, Judith Nesbitt was interviewed by Sarah Kanowski, from ABC RN Weekend Arts. For information on the latest thinking and tips on lighting, sustainable exhibition design, the importance of ‘intelligent’ building engineering in achieving stable environments for collections, listen to the audio.

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