1 November 2018

PREVENTING THE INEVITABLE

Conservation Tips & Tricks | Selin Kahramanoglu


Curious about the title? I'm glad I caught your attention!
For the next few months, my articles will feature a three-part series about different methods of conservation. This week, we will focus on preventive conservation, and use the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul (Aya Sofya, in Turkish) as our case study. It is also my favourite place in the whole world, so I'm excited to dive in!

Hagia Sophia during May. Photo courtesy of Selin Kahramanoglu.
Preventive conservation is a strategy that is always used in museums - it is basically Conservation 101. The purpose is to predict how an artifact will decompose overtime (because it is inevitable), and how we can take early measures to slow it down. It is incredibly important that all conservation methods are reversible. Nothing at all is permanent, so leave your Sharpie marker at home!

When we're talking about preventing the deterioration of cultural heritage, we are referring to both the artifacts, and the housing institution. This means that the historic object should be regularly checked for damage over time, but also the building's environment requires regular maintenance. Shall I go on?


Using the Hagia Sophia museum as our example, let's look at the main components of preventive conservation...

Is it getting hot in here?

Idris Elba aside, Turkey is very hot in the summer and throughout most of the year (I swear it was 40 degrees Celsius in June and I was melting). This extreme heat can cause major damage to the artifacts and historic infrastructure. With the Bosphorus Strait nearby, the Hagia Sophia also suffers from high humidity, causing even worse long-term problems.

Can you see my sweat glistening? Photo courtesy of Selin Kahramanoglu.
Solution: Central air-conditioning is essential for conservators to stay sane in the high heat, but also to save the artifacts and historic structure. Small, portable humidifiers and dehumidifiers can help control the moisture in the air. According to the International Council of Museums and the Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC), the typical museum should stay at around 20 degrees Celsius and roughly 50% relative humidity.

Turn that light out! Or, maybe not?

If you've ever walked through Hagia Sophia, the upper gallery has many windows that overlook the lovely gardens outside and provide natural lighting for visitors inside. However, this is a total nightmare! It may be beautiful, but inconsistent lighting will cause damage to anything touched by sunlight or direct artificial lighting.

Beautiful but damaging natural lighting. Photo courtesy of Selin Kahramanoglu.
Solution: Rather than cover-up the scenery with blackout blinds, the museum can invest in lighting the rest of the gallery space at an indirect angle, so that the room is lit as evenly as possible throughout the day. Along with the chandeliers, these lights will have to be altered with each change of season, and need to be readjusted on overcast days too. Light blinds will also reduce the intensity of sun rays streaming in.

This is a 'No Spider Zone'

Nobody likes dusty air and creepy crawlies. As an old building in the heart of the city, Hagia Sophia is naturally prone to both of these threats. With open windows, bugs can fly in and nest, or eat up the textiles. The doors are left open because of the numerous visitors constantly walking in and out of the building, this invites other air pollutants to enter as well.

Ongoing excavations outside means a lot of dust for the inside. Photo courtesy of Selin Kahramanoglu.
Solution: Keeping doors and windows closed would help, but it could cause the museum to get stuffy. Ideally, the windows would have screens to keep the bugs out, and protect everything inside. Still, the museum should have numerous air filters throughout the space to help keep the environment clean, even with the AC on.

Now you know the basics of preventive conservation! Conservators also consider the possibility and intensity of vibrations (from earthquakes, or subways), sterilizing equipment before treating an artifact, using a fume hood for chemical treatments, and wearing gloves when handling metal artifacts.


If you use all these strategies, then you will create a safe and stable museum environment for historical sites and collections for many years to come. Well done!

References

ICOM-CC Environmental Guidelines

Museum Association Guide for Lighting

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