“Pilot Conservation Standards” for the design and construction of NPS museum exhibit cases

Toby Raphael, Kevin Brookes and Van Wood

Abstract

Museums put their most significant objects onto display and, by doing so, place these collections at much greater risk than if they had remained in protective storage cabinetry. A conservation-grade exhibit case, however, can be an important and cost-effective tool for preserving vulnerable collections going onto exhibition. It is a well-designed and carefully fabricated display enclosure which must be constructed to specific standards. The problem is that these standards do not exist.

The display case has always been taken for granted as an effective means of mitigating damage while objects remain on exhibit. The unfortunate truth is that, until recently, exhibit specialists have had little information regarding the impact of common exhibit cabinetry on vulnerable collections or the degree to which they actually provide protection. As we learn more about the traditional exhibit cabinet from scientists and researchers at conservation laboratories, we have serious reason to be concerned. Research findings indicate that the improperly constructed exhibit case has an alarming potential for adding to the deterioration of its contents.

The good news is that properly designed and engineered exhibition cases have just as much potential for protecting and preserving vulnerable collections. When objects on display are housed in well-designed and carefully fabricated cases, they can be effectively preserved at levels remarkably close to those provided in storage.

The technology is now available to design and build display enclosures that balance the need to present and interpret objects aesthetically with the conservation characteristics necessary to protect them from needless loss. Conservation standards need to be developed to enable us to specify those conservation features.

A set of practical exhibit case conservation standards would allow museum specialists within the National Park Service to communicate more effectively their needs to exhibit specialists and contractors. In addition, our museum “clients” would become aware of what constitutes conservation-grade cabinetry. In weighing the advantages of different exhibit enclosures and when procuring new casework, conservators and museum staffs must know which features can be specified and what level of performance can be required.

The National Park Service currently employs 40 exhibit design and production firms as museum contractors and has recognized the need for a practical set of guidelines and standards for incorporating conservation into new exhibits. Three years ago the NPS Department of Conservation produced and published its guidelines on the subject (Exhibit Conservation Guidelines: Incorporating Conservation into Exhibit Planning, Design and Fabrication) and is currently working on a pilot set of conservation standards for exhibit cabinetry.

The project has been a collaborative and interdisciplinary effort from its inception, involving designers and fabrication specialists. The research and progress made to date in the project will be shared and “pilot standards” will be presented. Applications of the standards will be demonstrated and input from colleagues is being solicited.