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How do museums breathe?

Check-up of the Reubens Gallery of the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp.

European physicists, chemists and biologists are sounding the air in museums. They have been studying the impact of technologies, materials and visitors on the health of works of art in Venice, Vienna, Antwerp and Norwich, including phenomena such as lighting which is too direct, sudden changes of temperature and incessant flows of tourists. The AER project researchers are analysing these problems and offering those responsible for heritage and architects some solutions.


The heritage contained in museums is under attack from a number of sources. These include, in particular, lighting, heating and humidifying systems, air conditioning and excessive numbers of visitors. Works of art need a constant climate and a turbulent?free atmosphere. They suffer from the conditions imposed by museums, such as thermostats, forced air heating, which creates pollutant?bearing draughts, humidifying systems which are frequently not positioned correctly and which form clouds of steam or dry out the ambient air, spotlights which are too directly focused, etc.

"All the museums we studied shared a number of problems and all their directors asked for a scientific study to enable them to remedy the problems", stresses the physicist Dario Camuffo, coordinator of the AER project. These four museums were nevertheless very different from each other: the Correr Museum in St Mark's Square, Venice (a maritime city which attracts an unending flow of tourists, situated in the very special climate of the Po Valley and subject to heavy pollution from the nearby industrial area); the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich (a strictly contemporary building of glass and aluminium designed to host multicultural activities and not be just an exhibition area); the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp (two traditional museums from the 19th century). The survey of the state of health of the museums aimed to identify the vulnerable areas, measure hazards and suggest solutions and, more generally, establish a guide of good practices which could help other curators and architects.

Multidisciplinary teams

"The key factor is a multidisciplinary approach. In each of the rooms studied, one must simultaneously understand the thermodynamic phenomena which regulate thermal and hygrometric variations affecting the works of art and track the presence of chemical or biological pollutants transported by these atmospheric movements," explains Dario Camuffo. "Each member of the team must have a broad understanding of the discipline of the other members." Researchers analyse spatial variations in temperatures and relative humidity, the dispersion of chemical pollutants, movements of air masses, the role of light and of light radiation and the mechanisms whereby suspended particles are deposited. Microclimatologists record the various thermal and hygrometric parameters which will enable them to compile a highly detailed, 3D spatial map of the atmospheric processes; chemists analyse the gaseous pollutants and the effects of particles; microbiologists take samples (not from the works themselves, but close to them) making it possible to carry out microanalysis for the identification in the laboratory of harmful components.

Findings and solutions

At the Correr Museum, for instance, researchers noticed that the heating and air conditioning system was causing potentially damaging cycles of variations in temperature and humidity. The level of suspended particles which could be deposited on canvasses was excessively high and the presence of carpets, the use of vacuum cleaners and the frequent handling of the curtains aggravated this situation. Various solutions were put forward, some of which have already been implemented and others of which have yet to be applied. The heating and air conditioning system has been reviewed, the carpets have been replaced by parquet floor, new glass panes have been installed, the curtains are cleaned more regularly and some walls are to be repainted.

At the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, the metal and glass structures cause permanent atmospheric instability (aggravated by the ventilation system). This explains to a great extent the stress put upon the works of art, even if they are protected by plexiglas shields. In the last analysis, this contemporary museum does not offer a healthier environment than those of museums located in historical buildings.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna on the other hand suffered from an excessive number of visitors allowed in at one time during an exhibition devoted to Breughel; it was suggested, therefore, that the number of visitors be reduced when popular events take place. It was while visiting this exhibition that Paul Huvenne, curator of the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, was impressed by the AER project teams and asked them to survey some of the Antwerp museum galleries. "These scientists were heaven-sent to us, precisely at the moment when we were drawing up an inventory of requirements for a museum of the 21st century," he concludes. "Their studies and suggestions should make it possible to reorganise the space more judiciously and to opt for the most appropriate technologies. The fact that this study has been carried out in different European museums also makes it possible to make interesting comparisons and to increase the number of lessons which can be drawn."

Assessment of Environmental Risk Related to Unsound, Use of Technologies and Mass Tourism (AER)

Environment et Climate


Dario Camuffo

Consorzio Padova Ricerche, Padua, Italy
Fax : +39-49-8295915
E-mail :

-Consorzio Padova Ricerche, Padua, Italy (coordonateur)
-School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, United-Kingdom
-Institut für Mikrobiologie und Genetik, Universität Wien, Vienna, Austria
-Department of Chemistry, Universitaire Instelling Antwerpen, Antwerp, Belgium



Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (Norwich). A glass wall 7.30 m high and 29 m wide lets in sunlight, raises the internal temperature of an open area and clearly creates a greenhouse effect. The works of art, such as this Degas dancer, are partially protected as they are under plexiglas.