5 Things to Consider When Storing and Archiving Artworks

“A museum stores memory, or culture. But here, like in other museums around the world, many works rarely, if ever, see the light of day...”

Thomas Köhler, Director of the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin

Since the opening of the first public gallery at the University of Basel in 1671, museums across the world have collected and displayed great artworks for the benefit of society and cultural progress. But, for every Botticelli found at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or a Eugène Delacroix oil painting hanging safely in the Louvre, there is another masterpiece kept safely in storage.

Historically, with only a finite amount of display space available within galleries and museums, the list of major artists with work in the archives is longer than you might expect. Indeed, according to a BBC Culture report from 2015, of the 1,221 works in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent Pablo Picasso collection, only 24 are accessible to the public.

And, just as great care goes into the display of valuable artwork, for those paintings in conservation storage, archival storage or held in storage trust, a gallery’s approach to storage must be equally meticulous and under the guidance of experts.

Here are some important things to consider when storing and archiving delicate artworks:

Environmental conditions

Checking temperature and humidity

It can’t be understated the importance of managing the environmental conditions within your artwork storage space. As a guide, to help prevent damage and ensure the longevity of your paintings, it’s recommended to keep a stable temperature between 18-24°C and the relative humidity between 40%-55%.

Proper temperature and humidity control can prevent a number of issues associated with the appearance and integrity of your artwork. For an illustrative cautionary tale: in 2003, twenty precious paintings were badly damaged as a result of what was determined to be substandard storage conditions, including a lithograph by French cubist Braque which had been exposed to humidity and temperature fluctuations.

Meanwhile, it’s also crucial to consider the impact of dust which can accumulate on surfaces, leading to abrasion and potential damage during cleaning. Covering artworks with protective materials reduces the need for frequent cleaning and provides a barrier against environmental pollutants; a simple step which can go a long way in preserving the artwork’s original condition. In short, regularly monitoring the environmental conditions of your storage space, and making adjustments as needed to maintain the ideal settings, is the surest method of protecting your valuable collection.

Pests can also cause significant damage to delicate artwork. Termites, moths, silverfish, and beetles can all prove highly destructive forces against canvas and paper-based artworks, while rodents will nibble at almost any material they can access. Use sticky traps at door openings, regularly vacuum and sanitise, and ensure no food or drink is allowed in storage areas; a combination of these practices will help deter pests from your collections.


Minimising exposure

Both natural and artificial light can be the proverbial kryptonite to delicate artwork; causing colour fading and, in worse cases, accelerating degradation. To protect your collection, store paintings away from windows and direct sunlight. If your storage space has windows, install shades, blinds, or UV-absorbing films on the glass to reduce UV exposure while maintaining overall light levels.

For indoor lighting, avoid sources with high UV or infrared output, like tungsten bulbs, which generate heat. Instead, use special halogen or LED dimmable bulbs for spot or flood lighting. Minimising light exposure, particularly when artworks are in storage, is crucial for preserving their condition.


Best practice

Delicate artworks can be at their most vulnerable during the handling process, and the utmost care should be taken when removing paintings from walls, or transporting between rooms or handling for cleaning and maintenance. Remember, even the most seemingly conspicuous outside force can be a potential hazard for a delicate artwork. As such, when handling paintings, be mindful of watches, jewellery, even ID badges, which can scratch surfaces and cause irrevocable damage.

As a rule, we’d advise handling one painting at a time, carrying it with the painted surface facing towards you to avoid any potential impact. It’s also important to discuss and agree on the handling strategy in advance; small pictures can be carried by one person, while larger works will require two or more handlers. Use clean, thin cotton or nitrile gloves to prevent staining from oils and dirt found in the human skin.

Crucially, only conservators should touch the painted surface or the back of a canvas, and the cleaning or treatment of a painting should only ever be attempted by an expert. Any damage should be reported and documented immediately with notes and photographic evidence provided where possible. In the words of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s restoration handbook: neglect is less dangerous than inexpert treatment.

In order to aid smooth, efficient handling and minimise frame damage we recommend the use of a universal art hanger, that can be used during both display and storage. An example of a universal hanger, designed with this multi-application in mind, is the Absolute Ryman Hanger, a longstanding favourite of conservators, installers and curators alike thanks to its multi-functional performance that meets the needs of all three perspectives and priorities when it comes to the handling and care of artworks.


Keeping artworks safe and secure

The incorrect storage of delicate paintings can make them highly susceptible to damage, so it’s always advisable to avoid leaning artwork against each other or placing them on the floor. Whenever possible, store paintings securely on racks and use museum-grade storage hooks which allow you to attach artworks onto storage screens.

Modern works with exposed fabric supports and delicate surfaces should be covered with smooth, acid-free paper to prevent abrasion and surface dirt. Handle acid-free paper carefully to avoid contact with the paint, and consult a conservator for constructing travel frames for particularly fragile pieces.

Stacking paintings and frames is inherently risky, as both can be damaged if attempted without care. If it’s completely unavoidable, do so with extreme caution, limiting stacks to three paintings of similar size, stacked upright, using low-density padding at the corners and projections. Insert acid-free board sheets for extra protection, ensuring no contact with paint surfaces. Foam or felt padding should be applied beneath paintings against walls, while heavily ornamented frames can be supported on carpet-covered wooden blocks.

Documenting, labelling, and managing artwork

Preserving for future generations

Good documentation is the backbone of a well-managed collection, and it’s crucial to avoid backlogs and maintain control over the acquisition process. When new items are added to the collection, information should be gathered immediately through a structured entry system. This includes details about the artwork's origin, condition, and any relevant historical or cultural context. Thorough documentation ensures that each item’s history and significance are preserved and easily accessible for future reference.

Choosing the right collections management system is another key aspect of safeguarding a collection. The ideal system is dependent on the size of the collection, how it needs to be accessed, and the type of information that needs to be recorded. By carefully managing and documenting collections, you can ensure their preservation and accessibility for future generations.

Proper labelling is essential for managing museum collections. Each artwork must carry its identity number securely to link it to the museum's records, while also ensuring the label can be easily removed without damage, even after many years.

You might like to read:

The Importance of Comprehensive Artifact Documentation in Museums

Read Article

We are here to help

The proper care, handling, and archiving of precious artworks will largely rely on standard practices.  Understanding the factors presented above, the underlying risks and the preventative measures to avoid them should inform your storage strategy. But, while guidelines are helpful, they can't cover every scenario, and the instruction of experts should always be followed if you’re unsure.

If you’d like to find out more about good practice when it comes to storing and archiving artworks, or information specifically about our storage-to-display hanging solutions; Storage Hooks, Ryman Hangers and Link Hangers, please do get in touch.

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Posted by Jade Turner
8th July 2024

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