Mon 28 Mar 2022

Ambience Needs in Museums and Art Galleries

We have previously talked about the importance of creating the right ambience through heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) in commercial spaces such as stores, restaurants and hotels, this time we will be looking at the ambience needs of museums and art galleries. 


Museum visitors spend, on average, over two hours exploring and admiring the collections, according to a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is no wonder that ambience plays a great role to ensure a comfortable experience for visitors. In general, a museum or an art gallery’s atmosphere should elevate the collections’ beauty to enhance the viewing. But especially in this case, HVAC plays an even greater role in this type of buildings, as the artwork and artifacts showcased also need to be “comfortable”. We mean that they need to be protected from the elements and maintained in an optimal environment for their conservation during their display time throughout the years.



The agents of deterioration


Preventive conservation is the process of the maintenance and upkeep of objects with cultural and historical value; there have been established common factors that can damage them, and according to the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), there are specifically ten factors to watch for, which they have named the “ten agents of deterioration”. These agents are physical forces, theft and vandalism, fire, water, pests, light, dissociation, pollutants, incorrect relative humidity, and incorrect temperature.


Some of these can be prevented by physically protecting the museum’s objects, such as through protective barriers to separate them from visitors, or special shock-proof glass encasings. But other agents need to be kept under control at all times through other means, including the HVAC system; let's take a further look at how these agents impact artwork and cultural objects and how damage or deterioration can be avoided.



Impact of heat on artwork


High temperature, whether it is derived from incorrect temperature regulation or from proximity to mechanical devices that emit heat, poses serious risks of damage to cultural heritage objects. Heat removes humidity from objects, making them more flammable, this is the main focus point for artwork on paper, canvas or wood. Apart from this, heat can also warp different materials, damaging plastic, photographs, glazes on paintings and sculptures… High temperatures are also detrimental to the protective encasings some objects are placed in; plastic and acrylic encasings can get deformed when exposed to heat, and in the case of glass encasings that can stand higher temperatures, they do not provide temperature insulation, allowing heat to transfer to the artwork.


Depending on their sensitivity to heat, those substances that have very high sensitivity are called “unstable materials”. Some examples are videotapes, cellulose and floppy discs that become unusable, rubber and foams that melt, and some acrylic paints that become yellow in the presence of heat.


Temperature in museums and art galleries should be stable, temperature fluctuations also present different issues. When there is a drop from high to low temperature, the moisture in the air condensates on surfaces, giving way to the next agent of deterioration: humidity


Temperature in Art Galleries



Humidity changes and high humidity


When talking about incorrect relative humidity, the CCI distinguishes between four categories, depending on relative humidity (RH): over 75% RH is considered damp, above or below an object’s critical RH value, over 0% RH, and fluctuations of RH.


Dampness is one of the great enemies of art and historical objects, as it allows mold to grow and causes rust and corrosion on metal. The effect of mold is deeper on objects of organic materials, such as cotton, leather, and paper; this is not to say that mold does not have an effect on inorganic materials, such as ceramic, metal or stone, it just means that it develops as more superficial damage that can be reversed. However, metalwork is also sensitive to dampness through corrosion, a chemical deterioration especially present on mixed metal artifacts, and iron objects can present corrosion in the form of rust.


An object’s critical RH is the value above or below which damage can start appearing. For example, minerals go through a process called deliquescing, in which they become liquid when they are above a specific RH value; this is the case of salt, which deliquesces above 75% RH. But different materials have different critical RH values, so it’s important to understand the composition of a collection’s individual objects.


In some cases, any value above 0% RH is inadequate; an example of this are archives, in which paper objects, films and tape need to be preserved at a 0% RH, because any presence of humidity activates the chemical reaction that causes decay in those materials. Archival areas are usually separate from exhibits and only accessible to a few staff specialists and use a combination of dehumidification and HVAC systems to maintain the correct environment.



Ventilation to reduce pollutants


Just like pollutants in the air affect health and indoor air quality (IAQ), some specific pollutants are potentially damaging to artwork and cultural artifacts. Some of the most critical pollutants in museums and art galleries are acetic acid, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particles.


Acetic acid is present due to construction from inadequate paints and wood, they can be part of the building materials, and when present in an unventilated area, it can cause irreparable damage, especially to lead-based objects, which get corroded.


Hydrogen sulfide is a gas compound that can be naturally present in sewers, wells, mines and other underground enclosures. One of the major ways hydrogen sulfide can enter a museum or art gallery is through its own staff and visitors. Its effect can be mainly seen on silver and copper, which get tarnished, and some pigments used on artwork that get darkened.


Nitrogen dioxide is easily found in high-pollution cities, it is the component that gives the brownish color to smog. Unfortunately, this common pollutant can fade color pigments and degrade paper.


Fine particles present in dust need special attention, especially particle matter of small diameter, the type described as PM2.5, which due to its small size is one of the most difficult to control. Fine particles can be damaging to porous materials, on which they settle, causing visible discoloration. Cleaning fine particles from non-porous materials does not pose a special difficulty, but in the case of porous surfaces, it can be time consuming and challenging, and usually, expertise is required to do so without causing further damage to the artwork or artifact.


Airborne pollutants can be reduced through the use of ventilation and air filters. Ventilation and air renewal technology effectively reduces the concentration of pollutants to safe amounts by bringing fresh air indoors and taking used air outdoors. Ideally, outdoor air gets pre-treated before it enters the building so as to prevent other pollutants from entering.


Filtration and air purifying have a special role in museums where there is a restoration area. The process of restoration of artwork and cultural heritage objects can release chemicals that, unless effectively reduced from the air, can become a health risk and damage other materials. This is why a restoration area should have an advanced ventilation and filtration system.



Ambience for visitors’ comfort 


As museums and galleries are an important part of a country’s heritage, their contribution to tourism and culture is undeniable. This is why their HVAC system design should not only take into account the preservation of its artwork and cultural objects but also, as we mentioned previously, the comfort and experience of visitors.


Knowing about factors such as ideal temperature and ideal relative humidity for comfort and maintain indoor air quality will help guarantee a satisfactory visit.


Learn more about elevating visitors’ experience through ambience, here.


Learn about how indoor air quality on health and why it matters, here.


Museum and Art Gallery HVAC Design



Design and aesthetics


Another factor to take into account in the HVAC system design in a museum or art gallery is the fact that many of these are usually housed in historic buildings, which have their own characteristics and challenges. Mechanical engineering components need to be installed in a way that it does not tamper heavily with the aesthetic (or structure of the site) or removing large sections of the room for them. It is common to see dropped ceilings used to mask these, including for HVAC systems, especially when ducted type systems are not an option and other systems, like VRF or Packaged are used. In some galleries, vents are placed throughout the floor to avoid disturbing the exhibitions.


In the case of VRF installations, for example, the award-winning Silent-Iconic Cassette Design Panel by Hitachi is an ideal solution that further lowers the visual impact in all types of buildings. This option integrates cutting-edge design that is perfect for historic and modern spaces, becoming another aesthetic element to add onto the beauty of the interior. This stylish solution has the appeal of being “visually silent” and does not detract from the beauty of an artistic space.


Find the Right Solutions for effective Art Gallery and Museum Ambience


Let’s not forget that aside from the actual exhibition spaces, these buildings also feature gift stores, coffee shops, restrooms, and creative spaces that have their own climate needs. For simultaneously managing multiple areas while caring for their individual requirements, Hitachi VRF systems are designed for indoor environments that require flexibility and offer full control over an entire building. Multiple indoor units can be adapted to the architectural requirements, and feature a range of indoor units like a wall-mounted cassette, and ducted air conditioners, which can all be connected to one outdoor unit.


The Heat Recovery VRF system by Hitachi is an energy-efficient and versatile option; its key feature is that it reuses waste heat from one space to provide heating to another simultaneously, thus efficiently balancing out temperature throughout different areas in the museum or art gallery as required. Learn more about the benefits of heat recovery VRF here.


For ventilation and air renewal, and air conditioning solutions with advanced cleaning tech and filters available, check our website to see which Hitachi HVAC solution can help you create the ideal art gallery and museum ambience.




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