Cold frosted window with sunset behind

Cold: why collections and archives don’t much like it

Posted 5 CommentsPosted in Storage, Temperature

It’s been cold – below zero – in the UK the last few days, with days more chilly weather to come. I’m keen to have warmer weather (unless there’s snow coming, in which case bring it on) and it’s a sure thing that if you’re storing collections and archives in basements or attics, they’ll be suffering too.

Why? How can cold cause problems? I’ll use an analogy from last week. My seven year old wanted to take an inflatable plastic globe to school. We rescued it from her bedroom by the radiator and blew it up fully. We set off on foot to do the 10 minute walk in -2 degrees. After a few minutes, we noticed that it had ‘blown down’ and that the feel of it had changed – it had gone from being plump and springy to brittle and hard to move. I explained that it hadn’t blown down but that the molecFrosted window with sunset behindules of cold air within the globe and the particles of plastic in the globe had contracted in the cold, causing the blown down effect and the plastic to feel delicate. I told her to take it in to the warm classroom and see what happened and later she was able to tell me that the procedure had reversed.

Items in archives and collections react in exactly the same way to differing degrees – and there lies the problem. If you’ve two items together, say books with parchment glued onto paper or buckskin glued to card, they will expand and contract at different rates, causing loosening and tearing. Add a bit of condensation into the mix, which freezes in the layers, and you’ve got trouble heading your way – mould, mildew, shrinkage…

18 degrees is considered a stable temperature for most objects. It is worse to have daily fluctuations than seasonal ones as this causes more expansion/contraction cycles. Any area getting down to near freezing temperatures is a cause for concern. If your collection is in a poor space, consider a long term insulation plan with false walls of battens and foamboard – this will help with heating costs in the rest of the building. If you haven’t already covered windows, do so, either permanently or with blankets or thermal blinds at the windows. Allow some heating on the coldest days. Keep the area dry at all times. Consider a proper plan to look after your history and take care of your unique collections.

radiator

Art: keeping it cool

Posted Posted in Care, Environmental monitoring, Exhibit, Temperature

radiator-imageLast Monday I went to a lovely pub restaurant; one which is part of a new chain. I was impressed. There were friendly, helpful staff, lovely interiors, a log fire, fabulous, well-presented food and a corridor filled with what looked like original artworks. On closer inspection, I found that they were indeed originals. They were very interesting, large, pen and watercolour pieces and each reflected an incident in the town’s history. What an original and wonderful thing for a pub to commission! There were 20 or 30 of them – no small investment in time, thought, framing, cost or insurance. This, surely, is a collection to be treated with care.

 

I was surprised, then, to see that two of them were hung directly over a radiator. During a conversation, I mentioned it to the pub manager who said that the collection was curated by the artist. I asked if anyone minded that the images were hung directly over a heat source. The manager looked surprised and said ‘….well….’ Either it had never occurred to anybody that heat isn’t great for pictures or they were aware, but the paintings had to remain over the radiator.

 

Why should the manager care? Three reasons: expansion, contraction and chemical reaction. As things become warmer, they expand. As things become colder, they contract. When this happens regularly the work gradually becomes unstable. As things become warmer, for each 10 degrees of warmth the chemical reaction rate – which leads to deterioration – doubles. Art should ideally be kept at one constant temperature of 19-22 degrees. Seasonal changes are acceptable as they occur over a long period of time, but if radiators are on and off this will accelerate the natural deterioration process and the reaction of the ink and watercolour with each other, the paper, the backing and the frame.  The end result is that the pub will have a series of lovely artworks with two that are brittle, brown and wavy.

 

So what to do? We don’t all have the space to not hang things over radiators. The pub manager could try these:

 

1) Turn down that radiator

2) Have the radiators on constantly low rather than on and off

3) Fit a radiator cover or shelf over the radiator: the heat will go out rather than up

4) Swap those pictures for others occasionally

5) Re-site the pictures and put a less important item, or nothing, in their place

5) If you’ve done all you can and aren’t compounding your mistake with sunlight, strong lamplight, humidity, dust etc, don’t think about it again and enjoy your original art. That’s what it’s for.

radiator

Autumn’s here: Why turning on your radiators could be turning off your revenue stream

Posted Posted in Care, Environmental monitoring, Storage, Temperature
old radiator with peeling paint
Turn off radiators under artwork

Radiators – oil filled heaters – storage heaters – under-floor heating – at this time of year, the chances are that your office has some form of heating (and I do hope so!) and that you’ll be discussing whether or not to put it on. Perhaps it will go on for a few hours in the morning and a few more in the afternoon, if you work in a small cost or environmentally-conscious office, or perhaps you work in a space where your office becomes a blast furnace, with the windows open and the staff in t-shirts, from October 1st until March 31st.
No matter which heating style you live with, it probably won’t suit your company collections unless they’re in a dedicated climate controlled location. Most offices with historical collections fail to prioritize them and so store them wherever there’s room – the attic, the basement, cupboards, open shelving in offices.
So why is heating a problem? How on earth can being warm entirely ruin collections? Well, I’ll explain, and as it’s nearly my lunchtime I’ll use a few food analogies. Imagine putting two litre bottles into the freezer. One contains water, one contains alcohol. They’d both freeze, but one would expand more than the other. As they melted, they’d contract back to their original sizes. Now, think of the way in which pasta absorbs water, and how it dries out again when the water is removed. This happens, to a greater or lesser degree, to everything in a collection.
Take a traditional oil painting as an example. Usually, oils are painted in many layers of differing paints over a canvas, which is usually made from cotton, linen or hemp. The canvas will have been initially treated with a layer of gesso, comprised of linseed oil and calcium carbonate, applied over a rabbitskin glue ground (called a ‘size’). The whole is stretched over a wooden frame. The painting might be varnished after completion, before being inserted into a plaster and gilt frame. On average, you therefore have at least nine different mediums – canvas, linseed oil, calcium carbonate, size, wood, varnish, plaster and gilt, not to mention the paint and everything that it’s made from. ALL of these things will absorb and lose heat and moisture and, crucially, this happens at different rates, like the frozen bottles and the pasta. As they do this, they expand and contract, again, crucially, at different times. Back to the food analogies – imagine a flaky pastry, with different layers becoming larger and smaller at different times – a smaller bottom layer rucks up the larger top layer; a larger bottom layer stretches and cracks the smaller top layer. The end result is an oil painting with cracked, flaked paint, shrunken or loose canvas, warped canvas frame and lost chunks of gilt plaster – I’m sure you’ve all seen one somewhere. The paintings in the worst condition are usually those still hanging over the Victorian fireplace, which expanded and contracted hugely every day in the fierce heat generated.
Every single thing in a collection is susceptible in one way or another. Some items take decades to show degradation while others have visible damage fairly quickly. All the time that your heaters are cycling on and off, causing wide temperature fluctuations, they are causing damage. Moving items away from fluctuating heat sources can help, as can creating micro climates by boxing – best of all is a temperature controlled room, or one which has no heating or windows and so has a more even, less spiky temperature chart.
Once your items are damaged they are less useable for advertising campaigns, merchandising, corporate gifts, inspiration, research, image licensing and heritage strategies. Do take steps to protect your company’s valuable history – moving collected items away from heat sources is a simple, easy thing for you to do.