The Indoor Air Quality – In heritage and historic environments Conference. Where do we go from here?

By Sarah Hunt

This years’ Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in Heritage and Historic Environments conference, hosted by Birmingham Museums, took place on 3-4 March 2016. With 25 talks, a plethora of topics were covered including research on indoor pollutants, dust, display case design and artefact damage; topics the average museum-goer wouldn’t give a second thought. However, without this vital research, displays would look very different – visitors would have to peer though hazy glass to see corroded metalwork, or dusty, faded tapestries. But what are the future challenges facing Heritage IAQ and how do we tackle them?

With decreasing concentrations of outdoor pollutants and improved cabinets and filters, we have already seen a shift in research to investigate the effect of pollutants generated indoors. Recent research has worked on reducing emissions from cabinets and displays. Hence, in the future, it is likely that the artefacts themselves could become the most significant emitters of pollutants inside a display case, with implications for mixed displays. Could certain combinations of artefacts in the same sealed case lead to accelerated degradation, a museum’s equivalent of storing biscuits and cakes in the same tin?

Group photo from the IAQ 2016

Group photo from the IAQ 2016

As analytical methods improve, we have developed the capability to measure very low concentrations of these pollutants. However, with larger data sets come more noise – it becomes harder to sift out the most important factors and identify which ones cause significant damage to collections. Research needs to focus on assessing the rates of pollutant driven damage and to compare them to those of temperature and relative humidity. Museums could then prioritise the factors they control, or even set their own environmental windows to ensure their collection is undamaged for the desired length of time.

It is an exciting time to be a researcher in Heritage IAQ. Monitoring equipment is becoming more sophisticated, cheaper, smaller and easier to use, making data collection simpler. However, this comes with a warning. It is important to remember how this data fits in with the bigger picture. Only by taking a holistic view at all the environmental parameters can IAQ data truly be interpreted and sensible guidelines proposed. With this in mind, I look forward to the next IAQ meeting, which will be held in Kraków, Poland and to seeing the next steps in heritage IAQ research.

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