Preventive Conservation

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This content is excerpted from Preventive Conservation: Collection Storage (2019), Elkin and Norris, eds.

Chapter 3: A Preventive Conservation Approach to the Storage of Collections

Carolyn L. Rose, formerly of the National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC
Catharine Hawks, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC
Robert Waller, Protect Heritage Corp., Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, and Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario

Collections are created and maintained to contribute to the continuance and betterment of society. They are the material evidence of links between our past, present, and future. Collections created yesterday remain available to benefit society by being held and maintained, free from preventable loss. At the same time, they must be readily available for use. An effective and efficient collection storage system must meet both those challenges while retaining flexibility for future development of the collection.

Addressing these challenges in a systematic and cost-effective manner requires the development of collection management and conservation strategies based on the best and most comprehensive information available. That is why this book draws on expertise from architects, engineers, scientists, facility managers, security specialists, risk analysts, and diverse others, as well as collection managers and conservators. In some cases, information is available in the form of feedback on how well a goal is being achieved. For example, the time required to deliver a specific item from a collection to a user following a request is an easily and accurately measured number. It can be used as a performance indicator to signal to management when a problem occurs in the collection use function. Unfortunately, many aspects of collection management, especially preservation, do not provide timely feedback. In those cases, skillful allocation of resources must be made today, and in the near future, to ensure a good result in the medium to long term with little benefit from feedback. Improving the chances of future success relies on commitment to comprehensive issue identification and quantification together with thorough documentation of all available evidence.

A key to success is the establishment of a collection conservation program for the institution. The goal of such a conservation program is the long-term preservation of the utility of the collections; thus, any conservation approach must facilitate access to the collections and preserve their integrity for research and other uses. Both treatment and prevention are important aspects of conservation, but prevention is by far the most appropriate approach for preservation from a Western philosophical perspective. Preventive conservation programs are built on a foundation of collection risk assessment but must include a staged plan to mitigate risks while maintaining or enhancing accessibility. Implementation plans should be broken into manageable portions to meet short-, medium-, and long-range goals. Resources are available to assist museum personnel in acquiring appropriate conservation information and expertise to assess collection needs and to implement collection care plans/strategies.