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The hidden lives of museum collections

Preservation of museum collections involves complex work and multidisciplinary teams

Repairing documents damaged by exposure to light are a part of the restoration process

Léo Ramos Chaves

When the last visitors leave the exhibit galleries and the museum doors are closed, the objects in their collections become part of a world little known to the public. Although fanciful, the image of mummies and dinosaurs coming to life may help to better understand the behind-the-scenes work that characterizes the work these institutions do. No matter what their nature, museum collections require constant dedication by multidisciplinary teams to ensure their continued existence. Without technicians and specialists from distinctly different backgrounds, it would be practically impossible to ensure the preservation and conservation of these pieces. Concerns range from gallery security to resting periods for the objects, when they are removed from exhibit and returned to the conservation area, a space that is inaccessible to the public and used for cleaning and restoration activities.

According to Sheila Walbe Ornstein, a professor at the School of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of São Paulo (FAU-USP), the care of the collections, including the buildings themselves, begins with the establishment of appropriate conditions of safety, lighting, and humidity for each type of object exhibited in each space. “This requires the participation of architects, engineers, and accident prevention experts in the preservation of the building and its movable assets,” Ornstein says. When the institution is housed in historical buildings, such as the National Museum and the Paulista Museum, for example, one must be aware of the electrical installations and the specifics of the architecture, like wooden roof structures. Monitoring pollution and vibrations from urban traffic, which didn’t exist when these edifices were built, also requires attention. “There are historic buildings that were originally built to function as residences and consequently provide cross ventilation, which can encourage fires to spread quickly,” she says. To circumvent this type of situation, Ornstein points out that it’s possible to install barriers such as fire doors or screens that are triggered when room temperatures rise, as well as smoke detectors and alarms managed by central monitoring stations. Personnel trained in firefighting and water-storage tanks are also key. “This way the chances of a large-scale fire are reduced and it’s possible to delay the fire spreading until the professional firefighters arrive,” she says.

Léo Ramos Chaves Preparations for renovating the Paulista Museum included special packaging for ceramic piecesLéo Ramos Chaves

Museums should also have active accident prevention commissions, responsible for drawing up action plans to be adopted during risk events. These include strategies not only for evacuating people, but also for removing pieces the museum considers priorities, in cases of fire or flood. Camera monitoring systems in every environment, and specific surveillance tools for the most valuable objects are indispensable items. “The Nefertiti bust, which belongs to the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, is stored in a glass display case that has its own individual alarm system,” says Ornstein, noting that ensuring the security of museum collections requires continuous investment due to the need for constant technological updates and personnel training.

Resource scarcity
It is precisely the lack of funds for maintenance that has impacted the fire alarm system of the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará (MPEG). The MPEG houses 20 collections, including the approximately 15,000 pieces in the ethnographic collection, produced by 120 different Amazonian indigenous peoples. Fábio Jacob, a technician at the MPEG ethnography collection, explains that for about a year oscillations in the power network have caused the sensors to burn—and they’re often caused by ants. Despite the problem in the alarm system, the room that holds the ethnographic collection seems well protected. Access to it is password controlled and restricted to researchers and technicians. Inside, protected by a fire door that seals the room’s only entry, temperature and humidity are controlled by ventilation, exhaust fans, and dehumidifiers, which are automatically activated by an electronic system. “For this collection, the most important thing is to maintain relative air humidity between 55% and 60%, which reduces the risk of insect infestation,” explains Jacob. In addition, there are smoke detectors installed in every lab, and in rooms containing collections, which are connected to a central monitoring system.

Objects lost in the fire can be reconstructed with the aid of technology

Professionals involved in the preservation and restoration of museum collections must have interdisciplinary training, and constantly keep up to date on scientific research and new technologies, explains Ana Gonçalves Magalhães, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) at USP. With these multiple qualifications, they’re able to establish protocols regarding the pieces exhibited in different spaces. “In rooms that contain works on paper, such as drawings or prints, for example, the form of illumination is crucial,” the curator explains, using as an example the collections of prints at the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria. With a collection containing works dating from the sixteenth century, the Albertina has protocols that determine scheduled, recurring rest periods in its totally dark conservation area. “The solution to keeping them accessible was to digitize these collections. When they’re resting, the public can see them in a digital database or through the display of facsimiles,” she says. Magalhães adds that museum collections, in general, are much larger than what is exhibited to the public. Some of the pieces remain stored in the conservation area for preservation, cataloging, or research purposes.

Architect Fabiola Zambrano Figueroa, supervisor of the Paulista Museum’s conservation work, explains that although crucial to a museum’s life, there are still few degree programs in conservation and restoration of cultural assets available in Brazil. Currently, undergraduate degrees in the subject are offered by the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), the Federal University of Pelotas (UFPEL) in Rio Grande do Sul, and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), as well as a postgraduate degree in Museology offered by the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (MAE) at USP.

Léo Ramos Chaves At the Museum of the American Man (Piauí): sorting pieces in the labLéo Ramos Chaves

The Paulista Museum’s neoclassical building, inaugurated in 1892, has been closed since 2013 for renovations. It normally houses collections with pieces ranging from the sixteenth through twenty-first centuries, centered around three main focal points—iconography, text documents, and objects, according to Adilson José de Almeida, maintenance supervisor for the museum’s physical objects. In order to carry out the renovation work, the collection, consisting of items such as coins, stamps, furniture, porcelain, and coats of arms from Brazil’s historical baronies, had to be transferred to nearby buildings in the Ipiranga neighborhood. The process was five years in the planning, and as of October, more than half of the collection had already been transferred. The biggest challenge has been to keep some of the pieces available, both for researchers and for organizing exhibits. “A sixteenth century baptismal font from the region where Father Anchieta worked, an iconic piece in the collection, is now being shown in a display at the palace of the state government,” Almeida says, citing one example. It’s estimated that the renovation project will be completed in 2022. “The idea is that it will be used to hold exhibitions and that the collection will remain stored in conservation rooms built around the galleries,” he adds.

In the case of the National Museum, more than two decades ago a similar project was discussed, which envisioned removing the collection from the palace and relocating it into technical conservation buildings. Despite the losses caused by the fire, paleontologist Sergio Alex Azevedo, coordinator of the institution’s Digital Image Processing Lab, says that about 300 of the most important objects were, in a certain sense, preserved. Items such as the Bendegó meteorite, the Luzia skull, mummies from the Egyptology section, and fossils of dinosaurs and pterosaurs had already been scanned and the resulting images digitized as part of a project developed in partnership with the Department of Arts and Design of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio (PUC-Rio). Using 3D printers, replicas can be constructed. “Perhaps that number will go up to 500 pieces. We’re taking an inventory of what we have with us and what might be at partner institutions,” says Azevedo, whose lab lost 30 high-end computers. “We’ve printed many replicas of pieces that were holotypes for the collections of other museums. We never imagined that one day we would have to resort to this to replace the originals,” he laments. He further observes that some objects that were never scanned may possibly be reproduced if there are at least ten photos from different angles.

Virtual storage
Magalhães, from MAC-USP, points out that the digitization of museum collections is important to guarantee their survival, even if only virtually, and also to allow public access when, for various reasons, exhibit spaces are closed. Such was the case of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, which digitized its entire collection before closing for renovations in 2003. “But it should be noted that any content that goes through digital processing becomes a problem, because nobody knows how to preserve these reproductions for the long term,” observes Giselle Beiguelman, a professor at FAU-USP. For her, the idea that digitizing will require less physical space is misleading. Ideally, to ensure the security of digitized content it needs to be stored in three places and using two different formats. “If we continue at the current rate of technological obsolescence, we’ll need more physical space than is needed to keep the objects themselves, Beiguelman observes. “It will be necessary to preserve the equipment and interfaces that read both current media and new technologies,” she summarizes, referring to devices for reading and storing data, such as hard disks, DVDs, and memory cards, or even equipment that supports encoding standards for data stored in the cloud.

National Museum Collection A page from Historia Naturale, by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (AD 23–AD 79), published in 1481 in VeniceNational Museum Collection

Rarities saved
The 1,560 titles distributed in 3,662 volumes that constitute the National Museum’s collection of rare works were undamaged by the fire because they are stored at the institution’s Central Library, located in the Botanical Garden. Created in 1863, the library specializing in anthropological and natural sciences occupied the third floor of the palace until the end of the 1980s. It needed to be transferred to a building of its own—a claim voiced since the days of the monarchy—among other reasons, because of the weight of the collection of more than 300,000 volumes at the time.

“The rare works section brings together what bibliophiles consider precious and unique, with a high market value,” explains documentary librarian Leandra Pereira de Oliveira, head of the museum’s library since 2014. “Our collection is concerned with the history of the country’s beginnings and contains accounts by naturalists not only on Brazil but also about countries located in other continents.”

Among the treasures kept there are Alexandre Rodrigues Ferreira’s Philosophical journey: Scientific expedition in the capitanias (provinces) of Grão-Pará, Rio Negro, Mato Grosso and Cuiabá—1783–1792, and a Latin edition from 1481 of the Historia Naturale, by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23 AD–79 AD). Many of these texts are available on the museum’s digital library website and can be accessed via the internet at: