RAMM – taking a pragmatic approach to environmental control of collections

Main Image: Alison Hopper Bishop Museum Conservation Officer monitoring light levels. Copyright Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Between 2007-11 RAMM underwent a major redevelopment project costing £24 million, which included repair to the fabric of the building, refurbishment, a complete redisplay of the collections and a purpose-built off-site collections store called the Ark

Maintaining quality and excellence in collection care and high standards of presentation at a time when the conservation budget has dramatically decreased is a big challenge writes RAMM Museum Conservation Officer Alison Hopper Bishop

I think a pragmatic approach to control over temperature, humidity and light is vital; I have seen many objects that have deteriorated over the years because of light damage and poor or fluctuating environmental conditions. Mostly the damage is irreversible and can be quite severe. But then, on balance, I’d say I’ve seen many more examples of catastrophic damage as a result of poor handling, bad packaging and/or support, and insect attack.

Many of the objects in Victorian museums like RAMM suffered deterioration long before they came into the collections, or shortly after acquisition as a result of poor understanding of how best to look after and display them.

If we are lucky enough to be responsible for the care of amazing collections like those at RAMM, we still have to balance the uniqueness and local, national or international importance of those collections with real, long-term issues; the sustainability of how we care for them – or in the short term, how we ensure the collections survive in periods of major cuts in public funding when we may not have the money or staff to care for them properly; getting systems in place so that to some extent, collections won’t suffer if they are ‘left to their own devices’for a while.

I believe it’s important to keep mechanical environmental control systems to a minimum. Invest in buildings to get them to do the work of stabilising and maintaining stable conditions as much as practicable. We have a suite of galleries for temporary exhibitions at RAMM that have a high environmental specification that can only be achieved through very expensive mechanical & electrical control systems and it’s primarily because lenders ask for these conditions.

I’m sure it would be more sustainable if we were able to work more dynamically with individual lenders to agree their object’s needs in advance of the loan. For example, we could provide a ‘buffer’ zone, where objects coming in on loan are allowed to acclimatise over several days to latent, less tightly controlled conditions in our building if they are different from those of the lending Institution, combined with an agreed system of regular checks to make sure that objects are reacting adversely to the different conditions.

Cuts to conservation staff

In the run-up to redevelopment the conservation team numbered around 15 people including conservation technicians and student placements.
We are now faced with continuing our schedule of collection care improvements for collections in store, running the preventive conservation programme, carrying out work for external clients, replacing light-sensitive objects in the permanent displays and supporting an average of 20 temporary exhibitions per year with one full-time revenue-funded conservator (myself), one part-time Major Partnership Museum-funded Costume and Textile conservator and one FT conservator who is funded entirely by externally funded projects and client work.

Now we have new conservation laboratories and far better storage facilities for the collections. However, the vast reduction in conservation staff means we now struggle to maintain the public face of our work (and of course visitor expectations were high when we reopened and have remained high now we’ve won so many awards.)
As well as this trying to keep our preventive programme on track, let alone to keep improving the state of stored collections to make them more accessible has proved challenging.
No matter how few conservators we have on the team, we try to maintain our programme offering placements to students of conservation, who come to us from all over the world – in 2015 we have students from Germany, Finland, Canada and America as well as the UK. Having a really positive attitude to hosting conservation student placements has been of enormous benefit to the collections as well as helping to keep our approach to conservation fresh and up-to-date.

Managing the collections through the redevelopment

A new build and refurbishment project always seems to come with teething problems; RAMM has been open to the public for three years and I can’t yet put my hand on my heart and say that the environmental management systems are running as efficiently and reliably as I would have wished when we started the project.

RAMM was very fortunate in being successful in its collaborative bid to become the Renaissance museum ‘hub’ for the south west in 2003. This meant that in the years immediately leading up to the redevelopment, as well as throughout the redevelopment period, we had a fantastic, large conservation team who ensured that we were really well prepared for the huge task ahead (RAMM closed completely and apart from a retained area for the ethnographic collections – which we monitored with stand-alone monitors throughout – the entire building had to be emptied and handed over to the redevelopment contractor).

Fortunately we were able to build a much-needed sustainable off-site store as part of the enabling works for the redevelopment. Most of the collections were moved there, with part of the building in temporary use as conservation laboratories and mount-making workshops, as well as temporary storage for items going back onto display.

Sustainable storage for RAMM collections in the off-site store. Copyright Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Now that RAMM has re-opened, the store has been fully converted to its intended use as storage; we have about 1,000sqm of space in a very energy- efficient building, which is almost cost-neutral in terms of its energy usage because of the solar panels on the roof.
Most of our stores are designed to be energy efficient envelopes where the building does the stabilisation work. In the galleries at RAMM, wherever feasible we have invested in very high quality display cases with low air-change rates, so that the case does the job of stabilising conditions around the object and we combine this with regular checks for items that are on open display. We also have a very rigorous approach to mounting and displaying objects; the mount-makers work really closely with the conservation team so we can be sure that the mount that holds the object is contributing to its conservation, not putting it at increased risk of deterioration.
Also, no matter how stretched we are with other tasks, I try to make sure that we always have some time set aside in the schedule to continue with repackaging projects to improve the state and accessibility of collections in store.

Combined approach

Obviously with over a million objects stored and displayed across four different buildings (plus loans) and only a very small team, it is not feasible to carry out extensive monitoring on individual items. So the combined approach is to make stores as stable as possible by energy efficient means, and improve conditions further by ensuring the packing and support is as good as possible. For displays, wherever possible the case does the work of maintaining stable conditions; our environmental monitoring in galleries shows this is effective. Then the galleries where we hold special exhibitions are controlled to the lenders’ specifications with air-conditioning.

Galleries with high quality display cases provide environmental stability for collections at RAMM. Copyright Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Exeter is slightly unusual because it was the home of Martin Hancock and David Howell when they first had the idea of developing what is now known throughout the museum world as Hanwell Instruments. Martin and David tested some of their earliest prototype equipment at RAMM with my predecessor, Fred Ferguson, in the late 1980’s. We started using Hanwell then and have continued using their systems ever since. In fact I’m just in the process of upgrading my system, as I’m still using quite an early version of their hardwear. Although I’ll be looking at other systems too, I’ve found Hanwell to be very effective and easy for me to maintain, calibrate etc myself. But the newer Hanwell Synergy system has so many useful, time-saving features compared to the older system I’m working with that I’m looking forward to upgrading soon.

Conservation approaches

There have been two major shifts in thinking in conservation over the past ten years. The first relates to the approach to environmental control. The profession as a whole is becoming more open to the idea that insisting on tight environmental control for collections is not always desirable and is seldom sustainable. I think we still have a long way to go.
I think we should definitely be working more towards environmentally friendly solutions; think in terms of stabilising rather than controlling conditions, working on projects with architects and designers who can find creative solutions to reducing our dependance on M&E driven solutions; that means conservators have to be a bit braver about the way conditions are specified.
The second change that I’ve seen is in conservators’ approach to public engagement with and access to collections. Conservators used to be seen as the guardians of collections – the people who protect objects from harm and always said no to handling. At the IIC [International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic works] Congress on Conservation and Access (held in London in 2008), conservators were really starting to talk about the value of collections and the importance of making it possible for people to engage with collections at every level, including handling and direct access to accessioned collections, not just looking at things behind glass cases. Again, I think we could still go a lot further in making stored collections ‘work’ in every sense.