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Preserving Precious Artefacts
Q & A | Technical
Environmental monitoring for protecting precious artefacts

When the Melbourne Holocaust Melbourne (MHM) was planning an exhibition to educate the public and schools about World War II, they wanted to enhance their display by borrowing historical artefacts from other museums. Such items are invaluable and irreplaceable, so the lending institutions wanted assurance that the MHM could store and display the items in a way that would preserve them for future generations. Thanks to their environmental monitoring system, the MHM was able to prove that they could protect the artefacts in their care and the loan was approved.

Preserving historical artefacts

Artefacts, artworks and documents help to explain historical events and educate us about life in former times. They provide rich opportunities for research and discovery. They are viewed for the sheer joy of their beauty and skilful craftsmanship. Many are hundreds or thousands of years old, and exposure to light, humidity and fluctuating temperatures can do irreparable damage.

For example, the Mona Lisa was painted on a panel of poplar wood, which has cracked over the years, and would be further damaged by the wrong levels of humidity or temperature. When the Tudor warship Mary Rose was raised from the seabed in 1982, it would have disintegrated if it hadn’t been continuously sprayed with fresh water and Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) for almost 30 years, before undergoing a highly controlled drying process.

Sharing the world’s artefacts

In order for as many people as possible to benefit from them, it’s not uncommon for rare items to be loaned between museums and galleries. But the lending institutions will only let their precious items out of their care if they can be absolutely sure that the borrower will be able to provide an environment that will protect them and see them returned in the same condition.

There’s usually a high financial commitment to staging an exhibition with borrowed artefacts, and insurance companies need to manage the risk associated with moving priceless items from their usual homes.

The need for environmental monitoring

Museums and galleries the world over use environmental monitoring systems to balance the demand from the public to see, admire and learn from precious artefacts, with the need to protect them for the future. So what should galleries and museums look for in an environmental monitoring system?

  1. Regulation

Artefacts need to be protected from any environmental influences that could damage them or accelerate their aging process – with the primary culprits being humidity, temperature and light.  Museums and galleries need to ensure that they have a system that can monitor and regulate the appropriate environmental conditions at all times.

The Mary Rose has 30 humidity sensors to ensure that the drying out process happens evenly and at the right pace. The Mona Lisa is displayed from inside a temperature and humidity-controlled glass case.

The MHM has a sophisticated system of sensors that monitor the humidity, light and temperature of its galleries and display units, capturing and recording this information six times an hour, 24 hours a day.

  1. Alerts

The museum or gallery must be able to react rapidly to any breaches of the strict environmental conditions. So the monitoring system must be able to send alerts when the light, humidity or temperature reach pre-determined trigger levels, to warn staff to take corrective action. An effective system will also enforce corrective action – for example, by allowing the alarm to be acknowledged, but not turned off until staff have recorded exactly what remedial steps have been taken.

  1. Audit trail

It’s essential that the data captured by the sensors, including alerts and corrective actions, is all retained and available to interrogate. This means that automatic logging and a full audit trail is the third essential element of an environmental monitoring system. The audit trail enables a museum to prove their credentials when they want to borrow from other venues. If the borrowing institution cannot prove that they have the wherewithal to protect the artefacts, their request to display them will be denied.

Before the MHM could borrow the requested WW II artefacts, it had to prove that it could protect the borrowed items. The MHM’s monitoring system captures and records all its environmental data in a full audit trail. That meant they could supply the requested months’ worth of data to prove they could look after and preserve the artefacts safely. They made a detailed case, backed by solid historical evidence, to prove they could maintain the environmental conditions required, and that they had a robust process in place to deal with any threats to those conditions. The loan was approved, and the artefacts travelled to Melbourne.

Historical artefacts help society to increase its knowledge and understanding of people and times of the past. Environmental monitoring systems are essential to preserving these precious items into the future.