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Caring for collections during COVID-19

Introduction

Many heritage organisations are implementing special measures to ensure their collections are safe during this unprecedented period. The details of what is appropriate and feasible will vary between organisations: this guidance, drafted by the UK Heads of Conservation Group outlines those areas to consider in order to maintain the condition of collections from a conservation perspective.

Accessing and monitoring your collections

Currently the UK is in a period of lockdown. Heritage organisations should be secure, with onsite security systems utilised if possible. However, site access for collections staff is necessarily restricted in line with the Covid-19 lockdown and quarantine measures. 

During this lockdown period you may still need to access your museum and collection store in order to undertake essential environmental monitoring checks. You should consider providing staff undertaking these checks with some form of additional authority from the museum, should they be challenged by Police Scotland. 

This template letter provides an example of a letter that can be given to staff should they need to physically return to the museum or museum store for essential checks. 

This checklist is designed to help you think through some of the security risks to your museum during lockdown. The list is not exhaustive and each museum will have its own particular circumstances, so not all questions will be relevant. 

Risk assess your collections

With restricted access, it is important to identify the highest areas of risk across your collections to enable you to focus the time and resources you can deploy. The Collections Trust provides a useful guide to undertaking collection risk assessments.

The primary risks to collections are the agents of deterioration as summarised in this Conservation wiki site.

In the current lockdown scenario, key risks include:

  • Pest infestation: collections with known pest issues or particularly vulnerable to pest
  • Poor environment: collections susceptible to fluctuations and extremes of humidity located in areas with poor or limited environmental control
  • Dust: organic material on open display or open in storage
  • Light: collections exposed to UV or extreme light levels at risk of fading or degrading from light exposure
  • Building fabric/features: known building issues including areas prone to water ingress, leaky radiators or historic fireplaces that may introduce water, dust and debris to collection areas
  • You should also consider any equipment onsite linked to the care of collections that requires ongoing maintenance. For example, standalone dehumidifiers/humidifiers and freezers holding collections. These may be a risk if equipment maintenance is not maintainable during this period.

Focus your resources

When you have identified your high and medium risk collections, focus on identifying methods to monitor and, ideally, reduce risk. These could include:

  • Turning off all lights except for security lighting
  • Ensuring food is either removed from site or held in air-tight containers
  • Where possible, monitoring collection environments remotely via Building Maintenance Systems (BMS) or other environmental monitoring systems and making changes to air handling unit set points/functions via remote controls if temperature and humidity move outside preferred parameters
  • Turning off environmental control systems, either because they are prone to malfunctioning, cannot be maintained, or because with no visitors in the building, adequate conditions can be maintained without using the plant.

Scheduled collections care checks

Where possible, a regular check of collections assessed as high and medium risk is desirable. These checks are ideally undertaken by colleagues trained in collections care with site knowledge who can readily identify issues such as pest activity, mould growth or other changes to the condition of collections. For some organisations, it may be onsite security or other colleagues not trained in collections care who undertake checks. In these instances, an overview of the high and medium risk collections should be provided with details of where to focus checks, what to look for and contact details of trained colleagues offsite to report concerns to or discuss potential issues with.

In all instances, it is important establish a means to record and share the results of collection checks across relevant colleagues. This will enable you to identify changes in collections and reassess risk areas throughout this period to ensure your resources are always effectively deployed.

Emergency plans

The person in the organisation who leads on collection emergency planning should consider whether response plans need updating for this unique period. For example:

  • Will the plan work if some colleagues are unable to attend site due to the Covid-19 quarantine orders and, if not, can other colleagues be identified as reserves?
  • If the plan relies on the use of an external contractor or assistance from a partner organisation, is that service or support still available?
  • If the plan assumes that equipment, materials and PPE will be purchased or hired at the point of need, is that still achievable, or do alternative arrangements need to be put in place?

The Museum of London has developed an excellent pocket-salvage guide.

Post-lockdown Collections guide

With museums and heritage organisations currently closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, collections are being held dormant for a significant period. This will increase the risk of general deterioration caused by the environment, pollutants and pests, as well as reduced levels of preventive monitoring and control.

ICON have put together a checklist and guide which outlines how to address collection conservation issues that may have occurred during this time.

Other useful guidance

We are now preparing guidance on how to plan to ‘wake up your collections’ when the Covid-19 outbreak is resolved, and heritage organisations prepare for reopening. The following links also signpost you to a range of very useful sector guidance about collections care during the Covid-19 outbreak:

National Museums Scotland are providing advice and support to Scottish museums on areas such as collection care, loans and the National Fund for Acquisitions. Their Collections Care Manager, Anna Starkey, spoke at a Museum Social Stand Up about their processes for checking collections while their sites are closed. View the video below. 

Museum Development East Midlands have created a guide and training video on caring for collections in lockdown

Museum of London has an excellent page providing current sector advice and latest news relevant to the Covid-19 outbreak.

AIM has published a detailed page with a lot of useful information and resources.

The Museums Association has created an overview article, looking at how Covid-19 will impact museums and what can be done to mitigate it.

Arts Council England (ACE) have released guidance for NPOs and their other funded programmes regarding the current Covid-19 outbreak.

NCVO guidance the NCVO has a helpful guide to dealing with Covid-19 within your organisation.

Further information

We're gathering details on the impact of Covid-19 on Scotland’s museums & galleries to share with the Scottish Government.

Please email inform@museumsgalleriesscotland.org.uk or call 0131 550 4100 with details of issues you're currently or anticipate facing. Thank you to all who have been in touch already and do keep us updated on your circumstances.

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