Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales Collections Manager Tamara Lavrencic explains what is involved in managing a preservation needs assessment. This recording was made during the Community Heritage Grant awards presentation on November 10. This material can also be found in Sector Resources on the CAN website.
Preservation Needs Assessments (supplementary material)
The goals of a preservation needs assessment are to enable your organisation to identify risks to, and develop a long-term preservation strategy for, the collection. The assessment takes the form of a general survey, i.e., one that looks at the general condition of the collection and the suitability of current storage and exhibition methods and the current storage and exhibition environment as well as other uses for the collection. For community groups, a preservation needs assessment almost always involves calling in a consultant to help you with the technical details.
How to prepare for a preservation needs assessment
The consultant will require background information, which you can collate before you contact them. Prepare for the preservation needs assessment by reading the information sheet on Preservation Needs Assessment, which can be found on the Community Heritage web page.
Other documents useful for the conservation include the original application form submitted for a Community Heritage Grant and the report on significance assessment if you have one.
Choosing the consultant to do the preservation needs assessment
An experienced, qualified conservator should undertake the preservation needs assessment. When you’re selecting a conservator, ask for references from previous clients that they’ve undertaken preservation needs assessments for and where possible, ask to see an example of a report. Check that the conservator carries insurance. The professional body for conservators is the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (or AICCM), Incorporated. You can obtain lists of qualified conservators in each state from the State Divisions or from most State Institutions (Art Galleries, Museums, Archives and Libraries). The AICCM web site provides the contact details for private conservators working in each state and territory.
New graduates of Museum Studies and similar courses generally don’t have enough experience to assess the preservation needs for collections.
A preservation needs assessment usually involves a conservator carrying out a site visit to assess the environmental conditions and condition of the collection and spending a further 2-3 days collating the information and producing the report. Depending on the size of the collection, it may take 1-2 days to assess the building and collection and will cost around $4000. Travel and accommodation costs will add to the cost if the conservator does not live locally. Ask for a written quote that details the components such as: on-site visit, travel costs, report writing etc.
Briefing the consultant
Ensure that the consultant is aware that the preservation needs assessment is expected to result in a report with an action plan and prioritised recommendations. The Community Heritage Grant Office will provide a template for Preservation Needs Assessment, which follows the outline below. The conservator is required to use the template for the report.
The report should include the following:
*Name of the organisation
*Title, eg. Preservation Needs Assessment
*Author of report
*Date of report
Table of Contents – Should include page numbers for quick reference
*A brief introduction to the organisational aims/objectives and:
*Up to three key recommendations from the assessment
*Any key issues that will impact on the organisation’s ability to implement the recommendation outlined in the report
*Key recommendations – A summary of the key/major recommendations for further action listed in priority order and cross-referenced to the main body of the report.
*Condition – Includes the types of objects/formats are collected, size of collection, significance, use and alternatives to physical access. Looks at the overall condition of the collection and notes what parts of the collection are in poor condition and most at risk.
*Building – Description of the building type, construction materials and any glaring concerns.
*Environment – Surveys the internal temperature, relative humidity, light and dust levels and assesses whether they pose a risk to the collection. Looks for evidence that the environment is putting the collections at risk.
*Storage – Comments on whether the materials or method of storage pose a risk.
*Display/exhibitions – Provides an outline of the existing exhibitions and display layout of the organisation, including outlying buildings and spaces provided for temporary exhibitions.
*Housekeeping – Examines the cleaning/housekeeping practices used throughout the building and assesses whether they contribute to the long-term care or deterioration of the collection.
*Visitor impact – Assesses the impact that current visitation level has on the wear and tear to any part of the collection and/or building fabric.
*Disaster preparedness – Checks whether there a disaster plan or a list of emergency contacts.
*Training needs – Looks at what training has been given and what is needed for current and future plans.
*Recommendations – Summary of recommendations from above sections, in a prioritised plan of action. Should indicate those that are urgent (need to be done in 12-24 months) and those that are medium to long-term.
* Authorship – Indicates who has written and contributed to the writing of the report, their positions and qualifications.
Finally, make sure that the consultant is happy to take calls if questions arise after the report has been handed over.
Managing the process
If the consultant requires some funding up-front, only make a partial payment. Retain the final payment until you’ve had a chance to read the report and ensure that it meets the requirements outlined above. It’s acceptable to ask the consultant to rephrase a section if you’re not happy with it.
Ensure that the recommendations are realistic for your situation. While the report may well be used to successfully apply for further funding, it still needs to identify projects that your organisation is able to sustain.
The terms preservation, conservation and preventive conservation are interrelated and often used interchangeably. The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (Inc) defines these three terms as follows:
*Conservation: The conservation profession is responsible for the care of cultural material. Conservation activities may include preservation, restoration, examination, documentation, research, advice, treatment, preventive conservation, training and education.
*Preservation: The protection of cultural property through activities that minimise chemical and physical deterioration and damage, and that prevent loss of information. The primary goal of preservation is to prolong the existence of cultural material.
*Preventive conservation: Action taken to retard or prevent deterioration of or damage to cultural material by control of its environment. This is done through the formulation and implementation of policies and procedures for the following: appropriate environmental conditions; handling and maintenance procedures for storage, exhibition, packing, transport and use; integrated pest management; emergency preparedness and response; and reformatting/duplication.
Conservation is usually undertaken by conservators, people trained in the theory and specialised practice of materials conservation. They work in a variety of places such as museums, art galleries, libraries, archives and in private practice.
Preservation and preventive conservation are undertaken by individuals and organisations that collect cultural heritage; historical societies, community groups, museums, art galleries, libraries and members of the public to name but a few.
The Community Heritage Grant program brings conservators and collecting organisations together through funding grants for preservation needs assessments and conservation treatment. Preservation needs assessments (also known as preservation surveys) and significance assessments are the building blocks for preventive conservation. While a significance assessment helps you understand what is important or unique about your object or collection, preservation needs assessments tell you what condition the objects are in and what factors pose risks to the permanence of the collection.
It is preferable to have the report from significance assessment available for the conservator prior to undertaking the preservation needs assessment, as it will help the conservator to determine priorities and levels of conservation and preservation treatments.
The assessment involves a visit by the conservator to look at the building structure and assess its ability to protect the collection. The conservator also examines the collection for signs of damage, and assesses whether the damage is the result of the nature of the materials used in construction of the objects, environmental factors (temperature, humidity, light levels etc), handling or a combination of factors. For more information on the signs or indicators of damage, visit the AICCM visual glossary
A preservation needs assessment:
*Evaluates the organisation’s policies, practices and conditions that affect the preservation of its collections,
*Assesses the general condition of the collections and how to preserve the collections long-term, and
*Identifies specific preservation needs and prioritises recommended actions to meet those needs.
Together with significance assessment, the preservation needs assessment report provides the information necessary to form a preservation or preventive conservation plan, which may include the following actions:
*Stabilise or upgrade the storage and/or display environment, including building repairs, relocation of sensitive materials, reducing light levels, controlling relative humidity.
*Rehouse parts of the collection in enclosures that will help preserve them.
*Reformat unstable formats such as nitrate film, acetate film, videotapes, cassettes and newsprint. Reformatting may involve microfilming, digitisation or photocopying records that are in an advanced stage of deterioration.
*Conservation treatment of significant, and at risk, items from the collection.
*Develop procedures and policies, including those on disaster prevention and response, preservation and collections management.
HISTORIC HOUSES TRUST OF NEW SOUTH WALES
The Mint, 10 Macquarie St, Sydney NSW 2000
t. 02 8239 2360 | f. 02 8239 2444 | www.hht.net.au