Museum Collections: Slowing Down Time


As catchy as the song is, Museum Conservation isn’t about turning back time, or even stopping it. Museums are all about making things last as long as possible without erasing the marks of their past use and still being available for the public. It is a constant balancing act between preventing further deterioration of an object with making sure the object isn’t being protected to the point that it has no value to the public. It’s also tricky because you can’t think on a normal scale of time. You have to think about years, decades, or even centuries.

For example, a watercolor painting is actively destroyed by light exposure. The best way to preserve it would be to put it in a light free environment and never show it. That’s also totally useless. The better solution is to keep it away from sunlight (windows), possibly cover the painting itself with UV protected glass or plastic, and only show it for a limited amount of time before putting it back into dark storage for a time. The public still gets access to the painting, the length of time it can be displayed over its existence is lengthened by precautions, and its limited display time further extends the number of years the painting will exist.

I personally think the most important thing to remember in Museum Conservation is that you can’t save everything. If museums tried, they’d fail to save almost anything because their resources would be spread too thin. The most important resource is also the scarcest: staff time. I am currently the only Collections person for the entire museum I work at. Our collections span hundreds of thousands of objects in multiple locations. I only work part-time, so even if I spent 30 seconds with every object… well, even if you’re as bad at that math as I am, you can tell it doesn’t look good. I have volunteers and help so it’s not quite that dire, but the truth is most collections problems could be solved with more time. I joke I have job security, but the truth is, I can never, ever catch up. It’s just not possible. Even working full-time I could work the rest of my life on these collections and never fully catch up on every bit of preventative care, record keeping, etc.

Living with that knowledge and to keep on working anyway, is one of the hardest things in Museum Collections. I don’t wish I could turn back time, but sometimes I wish I had a time-turner.

One thought on “Museum Collections: Slowing Down Time

  1. I was thinking today about inventing a stasis fridge, wherein the food I put in would never rot. But having invented this, I would gladly lend you the technology for your display and storage.

    One of the hard sells about UV glass to art folks in the framing shop was the fact that it often fogged or made the colours look watered down ever so slightly. But not nearly as much as a year or two in a sunny patch would.

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