Museum Artifacts Suffer The Consequences Of Poor Air Quality

Museums and art centers are at risk for a number of air pollutants, which could damage objects over time.

While museums and art conservation centers exist to preserve culture and history, the valuable objects that they mean to protect are at risk of damage due to environmental contaminants. Sources of these pollutants could be as simple as building materials or from the numerous visitors museums attract each day, according to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The integrity of art and other displays also depends on a variety of factors – including temperature, relative humidity and light – which could amplify the damage done by pollutants if museums do not employ controls, such as air purification systems.

“The museum environment poses a particular challenge because objects are often exhibited or stored in microenvironments, such as display cases or storage units,” the Philadelphia Museum of Art wrote explaining why museums are especially vulnerable to pollutants. “If the enclosure were made of a pollution emitting material, it would create a microenvironment in which the pollutants would remain confined with the objects.”

Sources of contaminants
The museum building itself could contribute to the level of pollutants that affect artwork. Building materials such as paints and varnishes contain organic acids and solvents. Fabrics can emit materials such as sulfur compounds. In addition, there is the risk of particles like dust, mold and dirt and skin cells tracked in by visitors.

Museums are also breeding grounds for microbiological contaminants such as airborne fungi and bacteria, according to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

“Pseudomonas is a common outdoor airborne biological pollutant that is also found in museums, archives, and libraries,” the Getty said. “Pseudomonas and Streptomyces attack paper and textiles with cellulolytic enzymes.”

Effects of pollutants on museum objects
Air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide have the potential to wear out a variety of materials, including metals, stone and paint in different ways. For example, metallic objects are in danger of corroding or tarnishing due to sulfur oxides and other acidic gases while textiles could have their fibers weakened or dirtied by particulates.

In order to control for possible contaminants within a museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art suggests limiting pollutants with air filtration systems. This equipment will help to reduce the amount of particulates and potentially damaging gases in the museum environment.

An alternative to this type of equipment is a portable air filtration system, according to the Arizona State Museum. Portable systems can help maintain low concentrations of organic chemicals.

Indoor air pollution and air quality news brought to you by Air Impurities Removal Systems, Inc.