Caring for our collections during lockdown

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

by Fran Coles, Conservation and Documentation Manager

Although we’re currently closed, our museum collections still need looking after. Maintenance of our buildings is essential work and a skeleton crew of staff are carrying out a variety of essential tasks.

Nearly all other museum staff are now working from home, which presents various challenges. How have we been able to adapt the way we look after our collections during lockdown?

The conservation team works hard to maintain the environment at all our sites so we keep everything in good condition. On a day-to-day basis we track things like light, temperature and pests (insect and rodent). But a particular issue is changing relative humidity as that can cause major damage to fragile museum collections.

Under normal circumstances we adjust the humidity in the air using a combination of humidifiers, dehumidifiers and, in some cases, the heating system. Some of these systems are automatic but the majority rely on the daily filling or emptying of individual units. This is usually done by our Visitor Services team as they open up the buildings each day.

During this time of year the outside environment is generally cool and dry. This means that we use heating in our buildings to ensure comfort levels for visitors. But this can cause problems for collections. Some objects can be damaged by a dry environment, as the warm temperature dries out the air even further. So at this time of year we rely heavily on our humidifiers to add moisture to the air.

Luckily technology can come to our aid in this situation. At each site we have a system that monitors the environment, logging temperature, humidity and in some cases light levels, across different areas of our buildings. This information is then sent back to a central system which we can access remotely. We check this system twice a day to ensure there have been no unexpected changes.

One such change occurred at the beginning of the lockdown. We discovered that our humidifiers were struggling to keep the environment from getting too dry at Bristol Museum and M Shed as they were still being heated to visitor comfort levels. With help from colleagues, we were able to adjust the temperature so the environments are now within a good range. This ensures our collections are not damaged in our absence.

In addition, daily checks of the galleries and our environmental monitoring equipment ensures that any leaks or other issues are being identified. This means that our insect pest population is kept at bay! It also allows us to perform any essential building maintenance during this extraordinary period.

Our geology curator stood in the geology store monitoring a humidifierAt this point, we’d like to thank all who donate to our charity, Bristol Museums Development Trust. Your generous donations funded the purchase of two humidifiers for use in our Geology store. The Geology store contains over half a million rocks, fossils and minerals including the remains of our beloved Jurassic marine reptile, Doris. The collection is ‘designated’ meaning it is nationally and internationally significant. It is frequently used by researchers across the globe.

Bristol Museums Development Trust relies on visitor donations to help deliver the amazing work we do and our temporary closure is having a significant impact on our charitable income. We need your support now more than ever. Please consider making a donation today.

If you’d like to learn more about the work BMDT supports please sign up to our newsletter.

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