Defend or Display? Exhibiting Art Without Damage


by Kelly Boyd

The problem of how to display art while minimizing damage to the work is one that is confronted by museums and collectors alike.  The impulse share art with others is a common one that plays out on various scales across the world.  From the largest museum to the smallest personal collection, people want to showcase those things they find to be beautiful.  However, the desire to protect these same objects is nearly as strong.  These conflicting urges create a certain tension that is inherent in the display of art.  Luckily, there are steps that can be taken by both museums and collectors to ameliorate the potential harm.

Lighting is the first element to be addressed when displaying art.  Simple, natural light is a poor choice, even though most artwork looks great when lit this way.  Unfortunately, natural light is hard to control and the UV rays present in sunlight can damage art works.  Works on paper, including pastels, watercolors, prints and photographs, as well as textiles, are especially susceptible to fading.  Incandescent lights on the other hand, haven’t been shown to be damaging but they favor the warm tones along the color spectrum while flattening the cool tones.  Fluorescent lighting is not the answer either as it emits high levels of UV rays and does not produce light across the entire color spectrum.  Halogen lights have not yet been accepted by museum professionals as non-damaging, but a low watt halogen bulb has been introduced which redirects damaging UV and infrared rays.  Museums have recently been experimenting with LED lights for their exhibitions, but this is not yet a practical option for a private home.  When lighting your personal art, compromise is key.  A combination of halogen and incandescent light may be the most suitable for the largest range of art.  Avoiding sunlight and direct light sources are the most important factors when protecting fragile artwork.

Humidity and temperature are another two factors that museums and collectors consider in the display and preservation of their art.  While no single level of relative humidity is ideal for all art, a range of about 25%-65% is recommended for mixed collections.  Levels of moisture above 65% can lead to the growth of mold and below 25% can lead to the loss of structurally important water.  Whatever level of humidity you choose, it is important that it remain constant.  Fluctuations in relative humidity can result in warping, splitting and delamination of materials.  Temperatures should be kept low, as excessive heat can cause an accelerated rate of damage in most artworks.  As with humidity, maintaining a constant temperature is recommended.

When deciding where and how to display art, light, humidity and temperature are a few variables that ought to be considered.  Evaluating your artworks and their needs is an important step towards protecting them from potential harm.  Finding the right atmosphere for your art requires some consideration, but is worth it.  Additional strategies such as rotating the art you keep on display will serve to preserve the value of your collection.  The desire to protect your art is often in conflict with the impulse to share it with others, but a happy medium can be reached when the proper steps are taken.  Resolving this tension will enable you to better enjoy your art.

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