Museum FAQ: Temperature

The last time you visited a museum you may have noticed that the temperature in the galleries was a bit cooler than you’d like it.  Museum visitors often ask “Why is it so cold in here?” While every museum wants you to enjoy your visit, we also have to do everything we can to help preserve and protect our artifacts.

temperature devicesSo, why are museums cool?

Temperature, along with humidity, plays a major role in object preservation. As temperatures change, the amount of moisture in the air changes. These changes will cause some types of materials to swell or shrink, trigger mold growth, cause corrosion, or cause certain types of chemicals break down. Rapid changes in temperature cause the most damage. While objects are in storage they are often kept inside boxes and cabinets to help insulate them from rapid changes. Each type of material (wood, metal, glass, leather, plastic, etc.) has a different ideal temperature range. Ivory is best stored around 70° F, while films are better off near freezing temperatures. However, most museums house a wide variety of artifacts and have to settle on a temperature that is both comfortable for their guests and minimally damaging to the objects. This means that most museums keep their exhibit spaces at around 68° F, and try to maintain that temperature as much as possible. Especially sensitive artifacts must be kept in separate storage areas that are better suited to their needs, and can only be displayed for short periods of time (often with specially designed cases).

In order to maintain these conditions, museum must closely monitor the temperature and humidity throughout the building, so that any unexpected changes can be addressed quickly. Museums use a number of different tools to help track these changes, including: hygrothermographs, environmental data loggers, humidity indicator papers, and thermometers. The photo on the left shows some examples of these types of tools. Did you spot some of these in your last museum visit?

Learn more about this topic here….

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute

National Parks Service Conserve O Grams

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Canadian Conservation Institute

Ellen Carrlee Conservation


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