After three thousand years sealed in a tomb, King Tut’s sandals are looking a bit worse for wear. It doesn’t help that they’ve spent the past century deteriorating in the basement of a museum.
With the opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum on the outskirts of Cairo in November 2017, the leather sandals with gold beading are being re-excavated, this time from long-term basement storage, to join roughly 5,000 other objects from the Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb on display. Though many pieces have been touring the world since their excavation in 1922, two-thirds of the tomb’s contents have been moldering in storage all this time.
Take, for example, the 55 pieces of gold-embellished fabric in the collection.
“Those pieces are connected to the chariots of Tutankhamun,” says German conservator, Christian Eckmann. “They were unfortunately in a very bad state of condition.”
The museum’s staff has been hard at work restoring thousands of objects damaged due to the lack of proper preservation—a process that can take months. The whole experience serves as a dramatic illustration of the importance of climate control for museum artifacts and other precious historical objects.
Temperature and humidity—history’s nemesis
All objects will deteriorate over time. While use and natural decay play a role, environmental conditions such as temperature and relative humidity remain the most serious culprits.
With proper preservation, however, conservators can slow, or even stabilize, deterioration, extending the life of historical artifacts.
“Fluctuation is what causes the most damage,” says the Texas Historical Commission. “Objects made of organic materials such as paper, wood, leather, and textiles swell and contract according to the temperature and humidity levels, and can suffer irreversible damage when subjected to such fluctuation. They may warp, become brittle, tear, break, split, grow mold—any number of things.”
When precious documents and artifacts are stored in an area without adequate climate regulation, they’re subjected to fluctuations in temperature and humidity levels every day. It’s these daily fluctuations, as opposed to gradual seasonal changes, that are most harmful, which is why our experts in museum climate control recommend maintaining consistent temperature and humidity levels around the clock.
Out of sight but still deteriorating
Objects on display often get the most attention in museums, since they’re more visible to the public eye. Maintaining a consistent environment in the exhibit area while welcoming a constant stream of visitors can be a challenge, while glass cases need to be constantly monitored lest heat or moisture get trapped inside.
When conservators replaced the 1950s casement surrounding the U.S. Constitution 10 years ago, they found insect damage, flaking ink, and pockmarks caused by humidity within the display case. It took world-leading conservation experts to restore the document and ensure its future preservation.
If such high-visibility artifacts are so vulnerable, imagine what must be happening to the thousands of objects remaining in storage, where they’re less rigorously monitored. These objects often comprise a large chunk of a museum’s collection. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo, for example, displays 160,000 of its best pieces, while another 100,000 are kept in storage.
“We have masterpieces in the basement,” says director Sabah Abdul Razaq.
Since any artifact in a museum’s collection is likely to spend a significant amount of time in storage, museums need to provide a consistent and suitable storeroom environment while also taking care to properly prepare each item for long-term storage. Unfortunately, existing HVAC systems often aren’t up to the challenge, especially in older buildings, prompting many museums to turn to more sophisticated climate control solutions and dehumidification technology.
Polygon specializes in climate control solutions for museums, libraries, and other repositories of historical items. Our decades of expertise in document recovery and advanced climate control helps conservators create ideal conditions for extending the lifespan of fragile artifacts.
Proper climate control and dehumidification can save museums the astronomical time and expense of delicate restoration work, while preserving history for future generations.