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Keeping Our Cool

/ Caring for Art

What is a museum? One dictionary definition states that a museum is a place where important things are preserved. The museum staff enthusiastically embraces that definition and constantly strives to preserve the art that is entrusted to us. One critical component for long-term preservation is the means to provide a constant, appropriate, and stable temperature and relative humidity. Our abilities in this effort have been somewhat impeded in recent times as our aged environmental system began to fail and became incapable of producing the stable climate we require. The good news is that over the past year the City of Birmingham generously provided us with funding for a complete system replacement, and now our new chillers and boilers are in place and fully operational. We have backup equipment, too, if needed, with the entire system monitored around the clock in-house by a state-of-the-art control center manned by our building engineer. The control center carefully monitors the temperature and relative humidity in each gallery and storage area, making certain that the climate stays within our very narrow prescribed ranges. Daily environmental reports are shared with the Registrar’s department, its partner in environmental monitoring.

The Registrar’s department maintains its own independent environmental monitoring equipment—a kind of checks and balances—whose readings are regularly shared with the building engineer. You may have seen some of our monitoring equipment in the galleries, sitting high on a shelf or resting on a pedestal. The primary device we use is a recording hygrothermograph, which utilizes sensitive human hair bundles to determine the humidity in the air, and then transfers the readings to pens that record the information on a paper chart. Augmenting this device are little digital hygrometers, located throughout the galleries, and usually placed in discreet locations such as under furniture or inside exhibition display cases. We also have digital, hand-held, instant read monitors, and those are used daily for spot-checking. Another critical aspect of monitoring is ensuring that the monitoring equipment is functioning properly and giving us accurate readings. To ensure accuracy we use old-fashioned sling psychrometers, and then double check them with sodium chloride and magnesium chloride salts.

With our new environmental system, a dedicated staff, and an incredible collection—keeping cool is no sweat!