How Museums Keep Exhibits Safe and Stable During Closures
Despite their closed doors, museums are still caring for their exhibits, from still lifes to live animals.
While museums may be empty of visitors, they’re still full of art, artifacts and, for some, live exhibits that require care and preservation even when the public isn’t there to see them.
All of the local museums have kept up social media presences, from themed days with the Carnegie Museum of Art, such as Self Care Sunday and Tour Tuesday, to archive throwbacks with the Heinz History Center. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History has even joined Gen Z on TikTok with snail jokes and Dippy the Dinosaur content. The museums’ physical collections, however, require a different type of upkeep that has adapted to new safety precautions put in place to protect staff and security guards.
According to the National Park Service, some of the dangers to artifacts include light damage; pest problems; environment, such as dirt, dust and body oils; temperature and humidity; improper storage and security and fire hazards. Some of these hazards have become easier to manage since museums have closed.
“By not having visitors everyday, we just cut the lights and we don’t have as much light exposure,” Amber Morgan, director of collections and registration at the Andy Warhol Museum, says. “Temperature and humidity stay more stable because doors aren’t opening and closing, and thermal radiation isn’t there because bodies aren’t in the museum.”
Museum staff can also breathe more easily about art pieces that are not enclosed in glass cases.
“Just having artwork on the walls exposes them to risk if someone backs into the artwork,” Morgan says. “That’s not going to happen if no one’s there.”
The people who remain are security guards and, during scheduled visits, staff members who do routine checks. At the Warhol, these checks occur once a week and are scheduled through the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh’s facilities department to ensure there aren’t too many people going in at the same time.
“The staff going in knows the artwork so well, and they’re doing preliminary checks. It’s a ‘we know it when we see it’ situation,” Morgan says. “We’re really relying a lot on our security team who’s there 24/7 and they do regular walkthroughs as well.”
Some artifacts, however, are waiting to be returned. The Heinz History Center has some materials out for conservation, and while some conservators are still working on those objects at home laboratories, the objects cannot be retrieved until the museum reopens. Other artifacts have yet to leave their donors and make their way to the History Center, and those processes will remain in limbo until travel restrictions are loosened.
“As travel and contact restrictions are loosened, curators and archivists will begin to work with donors in the community again — assessing offers of donated materials and bringing new materials into the collections,” Anne Madarasz, chief historian at the Heinz History Center, says. “All this work will be driven by the desire to keep staff and the public safe as we transition to more normal work patterns.”
The History Center is also doing preservation work for the Smithsonian’s Portraits of Pittsburgh on loan from the National Portrait Gallery as well as 11 objects on loan from the National Museum of American History and the National Air & Space Museum. Those pieces, along with other objects on loan to the museum, require reports throughout closures to ensure lenders that the artifacts remain in a safe and stable environment.
“Often when we have a Smithsonian exhibit we report weekly, as we did for our Destination Moon traveling exhibit in 2018-19, or monthly,” Madarasz says. “Since we’re a Smithsonian Affiliate museum and have worked with them for decades, the Smithsonian knows our staff and operations well.”
While inanimate artifacts require careful attention, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History has to contend with an additional factor: live animals. From alligators to hedgehogs, these animals require individual care. The animal husbandry team members wear cloth face masks to protect themselves and the animals while providing enrichment for animals’ mental stimulation.
“Enrichment looks different to each animal, depending on their natural history, personality, individual likes and dislikes, comfort level with new things and more,” Sloan MacRae, director of marketing at the museum, says. “New food items, scent extracts, puzzle feeders, exploration boxes, new habitat furniture and one-on-one training are just a few of the types of enrichment that the animals receive.”
The animals also continue to receive onsite veterinary care in addition to their daily care from the animal husbandry team.
“Although the animals are aware that something about the world is different, they are handling the disruption to their normal routines with ease,” MacRae says.