The heat is on for art galleries

15 Nov 2011

Tate director leads the way in sustainably climate-controlled exhibition spaces

Director of London's Tate galleries Sir Nicholas Serota is leading a global campaign against environmentally damaging regulations in museums and galleries worldwide.

The highly influential artworld figure is arguing that museums and galleries are significantly contributing to global warming through the application of stringent rules concerning temperature and humidity levels, put in place in order to protect works of art from deterioration.

The regulations were originally established in London in response to the precautionary shifting of artworks to different subterranean locations during the two world wars, and have been strictly adhered to since the mid twentieth-century. To this day, without achieving the accepted standard - a constant 21 degrees Celsius and 50% relative humidity - galleries are unable to borrow great works of art.

While the rules are enforced to conserve these irreplaceable objects, Serota and his following suggest that the excessive input of heating and air conditioning is unsustainable and unnecessary, proposing that new galleries and museums should be looking at alternative methods of conservation. Amongst a growing number of influential figures in the art and architecture industries, Serota's concern is shared by former head of the Victoria and Albert Museum Mark Jones in his efforts to change this approach and consider new alternatives.

Maurizio Mucciola, Project Leader for the V&A at Dundee, UK for Kengo Kuma & Associates, agrees: "We are trying to use natural ventilation as much as possible in the museum; at this stage we are having controlled environments only in the galleries, but all the rest of the museum is naturally ventilated. We think this is a very interesting approach to contemporary museums in order to challenge the way the museum space environment is controlled. There are details and strategies still in discussion for the V&A... but we hope this project can become an example of how natural ventilation is integrated in museum buildings in the future."

All this emerges as the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery is opening its doors, which itself raised many conservation issues along the course of its five-year journey from concept to completion. And with increasing pressure on galleries to lend artworks that would not previously have been lent, galleries are seeking the reassurance of accepted regulations, making it incredibly difficult to implement immediate changes.

However, research findings from UK and international institutions are hoped to be able to establish a new set of conditions that are less environmentally damaging, with the Tate galleries already undergoing gradual change in certain rooms.

Coming in at number six in the esteemed Art Review Power 100 this year, Serota's global influence will undoubtedly result in the fruition of this much-needed change in climate control; but just like the acquisition of works for the Da Vinci exhibition, it is going to be a long, slow process.

Amy Knight, Arts and Media Correspondent

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