Setting and maintaining appropriate temperature levels is key to promoting the long-term care of your collection. These are our recommendations if you're setting temperature levels for the first time.
Conserv cloud is a free, cloud-based environmental monitoring tool. You can create an account at https://app.conserv.io.
What is temperature?
Temperature measures the movement of molecules in a material. Higher temperatures mean molecules are moving faster and generally expanding, and vice versa with lower temperatures.
Picture this happening with your own collection materials. Their molecules are continuously colliding against one another, faster or slower depending on the temperature. Over time, this kind of interaction, combined with other factors, leads to deterioration.
So that's a mildly technical explanation. Let's dive into the practical question - how should you set a temperature level for your collection.
Before we dive in remember this, whatever your collection environment is right now is OK. Our goal isn't perfect. Our goals are 1) to get a clear sense of what's going on right now and 2) to figure out how we can make it just a little bit better. Perfect is the enemy.
Setting your initial temperature levels
The goal of environmental monitoring is to quickly identify environmental conditions that can damage collection objects. To this end Conserv allows you to set ideal temperature levels for your collection.
So what's an appropriate temperature for your collection? This seems like a simple question and yet… it depends. It depends on the needs of your collection as well as the capabilities of your buildings.
tl:dr When setting you first temperature level we recommend a range of 65-75°F with fluctuations less than +/-5°F. These levels will be adjusted over time based on your unique collection.
An ideal environment for a collection avoids temperature extremes and fluctuations.
Extreme temperature is anything below 32°F and above 75°F. Higher temperatures tend to hasten the deterioration process. Generally cooler is better, but not below freezing. Extreme temperatures A range of 65-75°F is a good place to start.
Extreme temperature fluctuations are any movements greater than 10°F over a 24 hour period. Larger fluctuations in temperature generally cause objects to crack and warp, as they expand and contract. A range of +/-5°F is a good place to start.
Despite what you might hear, there's really not a standard temperature for collections. Collections are the same but also unique. One smart approach is to use your current temperature range as a level and then tighten it over time as you improve.
Adjusting temperature levels for your collection
Different types of objects have different ideal temperatures, so you need to take into consideration what's in your collection. A space with photographs will need to be treated differently than a space with pottery.
Organic materials - wood, textiles - are generally more sensitive to extreme temperature. There are specific types of materials with unique needs For example unstable materials like film and photos prefer very cold environments.
Display & Storage
Display affects how your objects respond to temperature changes. An object in a vitrine is more resilient to temperature changes than an object sitting out in the open. Very sensitive objects tend to spend most of their time in special environments.
Often the most effective and efficient way to improve the environment for an object is to create a smaller environment, or a micro-climate - either a case or a storage area.
Building Capability & Weather
Not all buildings are the same. Your temperature levels should reflect how well your building protects you from the weather outside.
Imagine two collections. The first is a newly renovated museum with state of the art HVAC and insulation. This is a very capable building, and we should expect a high degree of control over the collection environment. The second is a historic property with an old HVAC system. This building is certainly less capable, and we should set wider levels to begin with.
The weather in your area has a much larger impact if your collection is more like the second than the first. Expectations for your collection are very different in humid Alabama than temperate California.
Stability and consistency are key when setting temperature for a collection. Try starting with a wider range that can be maintained 24/7.
Systematically monitoring your collection environment is the first step toward identifying areas of improvement, making your case to management for additional funding, or applying for that grant.
We're not striving for a one-size-fits-all temperature since this “correct” number does not really exist. Instead, we encourage you to focus on extreme temperature ranges and extreme fluctuations - is my temperature too hot, too cold, or too variable? The best thing you can do today is to set temperature levels for your collection, any level, and then start to see how your environment is actually performing.
Next step: read our article on "Setting relative humidity levels for your collection"