What is an optimal sustainable preservation environment and how do you
achieve it? My interest in preventive conservation lead me to attend a two day
workshop organized by the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) and sponsored by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. The first day of this workshop addressed the question of “what you need to know to define an optimal and sustainable preservation environment.” The second day of the workshop provided information for achieving an optimal and sustainable environment.
What is an optimal and sustainable preservation environment?
The definition of an optimal and sustainable preservation environment
developed by the IPI re-frames the process of developing a good museum climate. According to the IPI, “an optimal preservation environment is one that achieves the best possible preservation of collections at the least possible consumption of energy, and is sustainable over time.” This happens when “your unique climate control system consistently produces its own best possible storage environment at the least possible consumption of energy.” Instead of thinking about optimizing as something that requires the purchase of new equipment, the IPI presents optimization as something relevant to what you already have.
Step 1: What is your system?
The first step in achieving your optimal sustainable environment requires
knowing what you’re working with. This necessitates looking into the following
- What types of collections do you have?
- What is the local environment of your institution?
- What is your building envelope?
- What is your HVAC system capable of and how does it work?
- What HVAC system serves which space(s)?
Step 2: What is your system doing?
Documenting and processing the information about the actual climate within
your building requires the completion of Step 1. This documentation of the
temperature and relative humidity of the space can be completed with dataloggers. Only once the building plan is understood can the decisions about where to place dataloggers be made. The data can then be analyzed using software and compared with the expected climate.
Step 3: Compare the expected and the reality
Once the current building and HVAC system are fully documented and the
actual environment has a significant amount of data (preferably a year), comparisons between the two can be made. This is often when surprises are discovered, such as the realization that rooms that were thought to be on one HVAC system were actually served by a different system or that air is being unintentionally blocked from reaching its space. The discrepancies between the
expected and the reality are often areas of learning and/or cost savings.
Not surprisingly, the workshop speakers emphasized the advantage of using
the IPI’s preservation metrics to interpret and manage climate data. Preservation metrics are helpful because they transform data into meaningful conclusions using standardized and reproducible processes. The metrics can also enable quick comparison of data between different rooms and can help to measure progress towards a better climate.
Step 4: Experiment!
After the system as it exists is fully understood, and a documentation
procedure for monitoring the environment has been running for a year, the process of experimentation can begin. Experimentation is only as good as the documentation that accompanies it – if you don’t know what you changed, you won’t know if it worked! The goal for experimentation is to figure how to achieve an optimal environment. As discussed above, an optimal environment is when “your unique climate control system consistently produces its own best possible storage environment at the least possible consumption of energy.” Therefore, when experimenting, one thing to investigate is whether the climate control system is using more energy than necessary. As Peter Herzog said, “excess energy consumption is not self announcing” – you have to look for it. However, the search for energy savings can only occur after understanding the current system and how it is actually performing.
The workshop by the IPI was very informative, well-paced and appropriate for both conservators and facilities managers. If it is offered again in the future, I recommend attending! Alternatively, the PowerPoint’s and resources from the workshop will be available at the website (
All the information and images came from the Image Permanence Institute’s Sustainable Preservation Practices for Managing Storage Environments workshop and seminar reference book. The workshop was held at UCLA in Los Angeles, CA from April 26-27, 2011.
Robin OHern (’12)