Preventive Conservation

On the left, hides in storage, on the right closed collection cabinets. J. Cooper

Preventive care is defined as “actions taken to minimize or slow the rate of deterioration and to prevent damage to collections; includes activities such as risk assessment, development and implementation of guidelines for continuing use and care, appropriate environmental conditions for storage and exhibition, and proper procedures for handling, packing, transport, and use. These responsibilities may be shared by collection managers, conservators, subject specialists, curators and other institutional administrators.”[1] 

It is now widely recognized by preservation professionals that no matter how large their budget, resources will always be stretched to cover all collections priorities, and so ‘an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.’  Money spent proactively on preventive care is the most efficient way to preserve an entire collection for the long-term, rather than acting reactively and paying for conservation treatment to repair damage and deterioration that has already occurred. Taking proper care of even a small collection, let alone a large one, can seem like an infinite job, and an active approach to preventive care is the best way to spread finite resources.

Robert Waller of the Canadian Museum of Nature and Stefan Michalski of the Canadian Conservation Institute have been the primary proponents of applying risk management strategies to museum collections. This approach has found wide acceptance in the preservation community as a tool for helping institutions assess risks to collections and find an appropriate balance between the requirements for use (i.e. research, display and education) and preservation.  Examining whether a risk is likely or unlikely to occur and whether it would result in minor or major loss aids in setting preservation priorities. Risk is broken down according to ten agents of deterioration that pose threats to collections. 

Read general information on each of these topics with some additional information on specific collection types.

  1. Light, Ultraviolet, and Infrared
  2. Incorrect Temperature
  3. Incorrect relative humidity (RH)
  4. Pollutants
  5. Pests
  6. Physical Forces
  7. Fire
  8. Water
  9. Thieves and vandals
  10. Custodial Neglect

Nine of these risks are physical (physical forces, fire, water, criminals, pests, pollutants, light, incorrect temperature, and incorrect humidity) and the tenth is custodial neglect.  This tenth agent is most dependent on issues relating to general collections management policies.  Risk for all of these agents of deterioration can be controlled at many levels – from the site location, down through the building, room, cabinet, or object.  It can also be controlled by implementation of proper policy and procedures. 


[1] Society for the Preservation of Natural History collections. 1994. Guidelines for the care of natural history collections.  Collection Forum, 10:32-40.