How the Museums Store Priceless Artwork

Written by Mark Rogers

For the most part, artwork that is hanging in a museum often looks pretty simple: sleek metal or original wooden frames, matted or not, hanging on clean walls. But even though the presentation in a museum is fairly modest, there is a lot more going on to protect these priceless pieces of art from unseen dangers.

In fact, most museums don’t even show off their most precious pieces from their collections; for example, the Louvre displays just 8% of its massive collection, and most museums display even fewer. Space is one reason that museums will keep these pieces of art locked away in climate-controlled, heavily protected, immaculate storage facilities — there is simply not enough room to hang thousands (or even millions) of pieces of art in one building. Another reason is the concern for the condition of the pieces themselves: some artwork is just too old, too delicate and too valuable to risk the damage of displaying them.

Museum Methods and How to Use Them

While often used interchangeably, preservation and conservation are separate ideas. According to the Library of Congress, preservation is an overarching concept that includes conservation efforts in its goal to maintain or improve the condition of the piece. Conservation efforts focus on the materials, method of construction, provenance and historical significance of the work in order to preserve them.

Since museum storage facilities are generally not open to the public — though some museums are moving in that direction — one of the best-known examples of the lengths to which museums will go to protect particularly valuable pieces is the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. In 2005, the painting was moved into a bulletproof enclosure that is kept at a precise temperature and level of humidity with minimal light exposure — hitting all the points of conservation.

While it’s not necessary to copy how museums store and display artwork, especially in the case of the Mona Lisa, some of their guidelines can be applied to the home.

  • Rotate your home collection.

Museums have permanent collections, but they’ll sometimes present temporary exhibitions of pieces that have been in storage for years. The Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria, for example, put Albrecht Durer’s famous Young Hare on display a few years ago for just a short period of time, the BBC reported, as the delicate masterpiece requires periods of “rest” in a dark, dry storage facility to prevent any damage.

Most households don’t have such priceless pieces on display, but some photographs, documents or other artwork may hold equal sentimental value. Treat your home like a museum — while there may be a permanent collection, bring out pieces from storage for a few months, perhaps coinciding with the seasons or based on a theme.

  • Be careful about where you’re hanging them.

A common place to hang large paintings and photographs is directly over a fireplace — but this is actually one of the worst place for one, especially if it’s a wood-burning fireplace and the artwork has no glazing. Heat can dry out artwork, soften paint and attract dust and grime; with wood-burning fireplaces, the rising soot and smoke can cause even further damage. Ensure artwork is hung away from heating vents or air conditioning units as well — museums’ storage facilities are always temperature controlled.

Additionally, homes that get tons of sunlight are desirable, but not for artwork. Museums have far fewer windows in their galleries (and sometimes none at all) to minimize exposure to harmful UV light. While you can purchase UV-filter glass or acrylic glazing, not everyone knows what type of glazing is in existing frames or feel the need to purchase specialty glazing . Take care to hang picture frames in areas that receive no direct sunlight, or hang only easily reproducible work in rooms with lots of natural light.

  • Store them well.

Choose your storage space wisely when putting artwork away for any period of time. Basements, attics, and garages are the main storage spaces for most homes, but they are less likely to be insulated or temperature controlled. The extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity may cause more damage than constant display in sunlight.

Many people spend a lot of time and money on picture framing packages and picture mats with all the trimmings, such as cotton rag mat board and archival mount board, but not as many invest in the storage of their artwork. Handle artwork — especially paper documents — with cotton gloves, and store them unfolded in between acid-free tissue paper in museum-quality storage boxes.

Museums may have a team of experts to handle the storage and display of valuable artwork, but their techniques and tools can be used just as well at home to protect your own priceless art.

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1 thoughts on “How the Museums Store Priceless Artwork”

  • rosalie frost

    Helpful information---but I have had several exhibits over the years in which my photographs were archivally matted and kept in their frames, either wood or metal frames. Should I remove all the frames and keep the matted photographs in museum quality boxes, or is it ok to keep the photographs in their frames? Thanks for your reply!

    • Mark Rogers

      If your prints are framed with archival methods and materials it is fine to leave them in the frames. Light is what causes the most damage so if you want them to last as long as possible you want to reduce the light intensity which means avoiding directly sunlight. If you want something to last forever, then you want to most keep them in the dark. If the glass has UV filter and you avoid direct sunlight they should last for a couple hundred years without negligible fading.


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