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A Green Museum: Preserving Collections in Sustainable Ways

May 6, 2013 | By Laura Word

Many individuals these days are looking for ways to be more eco-friendly, which might involve recycling, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, conserving water, and using more earth-friendly products.  This is also true for museums, libraries, and archives, many of which have launched “green” initiatives. But these institutions face enormous challenges when it comes to preserving humanities collections that represent our shared cultural heritage. Caring for these often fragile materials can be costly. Collections must be protected from fire, flood, and theft, and they must be kept in environments that slow their deterioration. To preserve their collections, cultural institutions often rely on systems for climate control and lighting that demand significant amounts of energy. To help museums, libraries, and archives meet their preservation goals in more energy-efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly ways, NEH developed in 2010 a grant program in the Division of Preservation and Access called Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections.

On occasion, we’ll be highlighting grants awarded through this program and illustrating some of the ways museums, libraries, and archives are incorporating sustainable strategies into their preservation practices, strategies that balance cost, environmental impact, and preservation effectiveness.

Today, we’re introducing the work of the Litchfield Historical Society, which was founded in 1856 to collect, preserve, and interpret the history of Litchfield, Connecticut. The museum is located in a National Landmark District, has five full-time staff and an operating budget of less than $500,000 a year, and maintains three historic buildings that feature collections of furniture, paintings, textiles, toys, ceramics, trade signs, and other fine and decorative arts, along with a library of local business and organizational archives, manuscripts and family papers, reference books, and genealogical material. Collections date from the founding of the town in 1719 to the present, with a concentration on the years 1781 to 1840 when Litchfield was a bustling commercial and educational center.

Visitors to the historical society can learn about local lawyer Tapping Reeve, who developed the first curriculum for teaching common law and opened the first law school in the United States.  Between 1774 and 1833, the school’s graduates included two vice-presidents, Aaron Burr and John C. Calhoun; 14 governors; 14 members of the federal cabinet; 28 U.S. Senators; 100 members of the House of Representatives; and three members of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Litchfield was also the home of the Litchfield Female Academy, a pioneering institution of female education founded in 1792 by Sarah Pierce with a curriculum that combined academic, practical, and ornamental courses for girls. More than 3,000 girls attended the school over its 41 year history.  You can learn more about the two schools and their students by visiting the society’s website and searching The Ledger, an online database that brings together letters, artwork, and personal belongings of the students along with biographical and genealogical information.

In 2010, with the assistance of a Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections planning grant, the museum began to investigate ways to provide the best possible conditions for their collections with the least consumption of energy. The museum’s staff had been attempting to adhere year-round to the narrow environmental parameters of 70° Fahrenheit (± 2°) and 50% relative humidity (± 5%), which required enormous amounts of energy and financial resources. In addition, the strain placed on the mechanical systems to continually regulate the air being brought into the buildings led to frequent breakdowns and expensive repairs of the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. During the planning project, the staff of the historical society worked with an architect, an engineer, a conservator, and a climate control technician to review comprehensively the conditions of the exterior and interior of the historic buildings, their mechanical systems, the collections contained therein, and the current collections environment.

The planning team recommended widening the parameters for temperature and relative humidity, which would reduce energy costs for the historical society without compromising the longevity of the collections or the integrity of the historic buildings.  They recommended that the museum maintain relative humidity at between 30% and 60% while allowing for gradual seasonal variations, and cooler temperatures in collections spaces.  The project team also identified “passive” (i.e., nonmechanical) measures that could be implemented to secure the building and minimize the infiltration of moisture into the interior as well as upgrades to lighting and climate control systems to make them function more efficiently and effectively.  With these improvements to the museum’s historic buildings and environmental systems and with more realistic environmental parameters, the planning team believed that the historical society would be able to maintain a quality preservation environment while reducing energy use and saving  money.

In 2011, the Litchfield Historical Society received a Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections implementation grant from NEH along with support from other private foundations, which enabled it to carry out these recommendations for the 1901 Noyes Memorial Building, which houses the exhibitions, the society’s library, collection storage spaces, and staff offices. Work included installing a new roof, gutters, and downspouts; repointing (i.e., replacing the mortar) of masonry; and replacing old lighting in the exhibition galleries with new energy-efficient LED lighting. Components of the existing climate control system were also upgraded, automated climate controls and monitoring systems were added, and the museum’s textile collection was rehoused in a mobile compact storage system.

The work at the Litchfield Historical Society has already paid off. The collection environment is being maintained as intended, and the museum has seen significant reductions in its energy use and costs. Between 2006 and 2009, before the project began, utility bills at the historical society had averaged nearly $35,000 a year.  As improvements were made, energy use began to decline, and in 2012, the annual utility costs for the society were $11,720.  The museum continues to track energy use and costs and monitor environmental conditions to ensure that its collections will be protected and preserved well into the future.

The society has realized other significant outcomes as a result of its commitment to sustainable preservation practices, which are worthy of mention. The museum’s staff is working with consultants and the Board of Trustee’s building and grounds committee to create a 10-year maintenance plan for its physical facilities. The board has initiated a capital campaign to raise additional funds for the museum’s immediate needs and to develop a maintenance endowment for future needs. Fundraising is now underway to implement passive and mechanical improvements to the museum’s other buildings. Furthermore, the historical society’s climate control technician is documenting changes to the mechanical systems and mapping how conditioned air moves through the buildings, so that in the future staff and technicians can continue to manage and maintain these environmental systems effectively.

Litchfield Historical Society’s work, supported in part through these NEH grants, underscores the value of a more pragmatic approach to preservation that is based on the specific nature of the humanities collections and the buildings that house them and that takes into account local climate conditions, institutional capacity, energy efficiency, cost effectiveness, and environmental impact. The NEH project clearly demonstrates that sustainable preservation strategies can save costs, reduce energy use, help the environment, and protect important cultural heritage collections.

For more information about this project, see the narrative of Litchfield Historical Society’s grant application. A white paper describing the lessons learned from the planning project is here, and a white paper from the implementation project will be posted online when that project is concluded later this year.

The Litchfield Historical Society has received two Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections grants: a 2010 planning grant, PF-50068-10, and a 2011 implementation grant, PF-50139-11.