Environmental Conditions in Historic House Museums
There are a multitude of environmental factors that might affect the collections within a historic house museum. The most prevalent at Historic New England include light and moisture.
- Mold can germinate when exposed to high temperatures and high relative humidity (RH) causing damage both to the building and to the objects.
- Low RH, indicating a dry environment, can cause damage through material contraction causing wood joints to separate, paint to crack, and veneers to release.
- Ultraviolet light (UV) causes damage to collections. It is important to note that all light is, in fact, a source of degradation.
The essence of a historic house museum and a goal of our historic property interpretation is for the public to experience, in a real and personal way, the way the lives and stories of the individuals and families who made New England what it is today. Despite the fears of a potentially unstable environment for the objects, it is important to think about the objects in the following terms:
- It is important for us to leave the objects in situ as the family owned and used them. In fact removing the objects to a “museum environment” would be pointless for a large number of the objects because their real value is in context next to the other items used by the family.
- These objects have been exposed over their lifetime in the structure to conditions that have always been unstable when compared to a traditional museum environment.
- The majority of objects have a low risk of damage due to the conditions at the houses.
For these reasons Historic New England has been experimenting with different methods to mitigate the risk of damage and long term deterioration of its buildings and objects from environmental issues.
There are strategies we have learned for maintaining and monitoring the temperature and relative humidity in the historic house museums. learn more about our overall approach, the use of heating and ventilation systems, and how we monitor and collect data about the temperature and RH.
There are many strategies for mitigating light and UV in historic house museums. Most of our houses have curtains that are drawn or interior shutters that are closed when a tour is not in process. But even the exposure to light and UV from the short times a house is on tour can be damaging.