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Centre for the National Museum of Australia Collections

Greer Gehrt and Eric Archer, National Museum of Australia, 14 May 2010

JOANNE BACH: Our next presenter is Greer Gehrt who is a qualified interior architect. While she has a lot of experience outside of museums, she is currently the manager of the project entitled Centre for National Museum of Australia Collections – again, perhaps we could work on snappy titles, but that may just be the curator in me wanting to get creative. Greer is responsible for the project where we are looking at a new centre for our collection storage. I would like to invite her up to talk to you about that.

GREER GEHRT: Eric [Archer] and I are presenting together today. Eric will jump in throughout the talk to add some of his observations. As Jo said, today I am going to be talking about balancing passive design and collection management needs and also talk a bit about a research trip that Eric and I did in October last year and a workshop that we attended in Copenhagen specifically on the topic of low energy environments for museums.

I thought I would provide you a bit of background on the proposal for the Centre for National Museum of Australia Collections which we call CNMAC. I will refer to as that from now on because it is a bit of a mouthful. One of the reasons we changed the title from storage is that this proposal is about so much more than storage; it is about allowing for the responsible care of our collections into the future. We are directed in our Act to look after our collections in perpetuity, yet there is a trend to build buildings for at least 30 years and then basically pull them down and redo them again, which we feel is not a particularly responsible way forward. We are looking at trying to build a building which will last us in the long term.

By way of background, in 2004 an audit was done over a number of cultural institutions into the state of the storage of collections. It cited the Museum’s situation as being the worst of any cultural institution that was part of that report. As a result of that report, in 2005 we commenced on an accommodation plan. At the same time a cross portfolio storage review was undertaken, which looked at five different cultural institutions in Canberra to see what the potential opportunities might be for actually sharing space, sharing storage, sharing a number of different functions within the buildings that everybody requires.

In 2007, the Museum was given approval to proceed with an outline business case, which comprised of: a preliminary requirements brief and a functional area matrix, which was basically an audit of our existing stores, exactly what we had, how much space we had and the types of conditions that the collection was being kept in.

In December 2007 we went forward with a proposal to request that we could go to that next stage of planning, the detailed business case, which we were given approval for. We were hoping that we would get approval in some ways to just go forward with our optimum plan, which was to build and own our own facility, but we were also asked to explore another couple of options which we highlighted in that first business case. This is what we have done in the last five months of last year. The Museum is very supportive in allowing me to bring a team together of different key people in the Museum to be dedicated full time to working on this project. That is why Eric and I were able to work together on this.

In response to all of these internal and external reports which concerned the accommodation of our collection, we developed a proposal which looks at a new way of controlling the environmental parameters within these facilities in a passive way. It started off with brainstorming [image shown]. You can see up on the slide we were looking at the fact that for a building of this size – we are talking about a 20,000 square metre building – you would have massive roof, so that provides a fantastic opportunity for rain water harvesting, for collection of power from solar panels and for lots of other different another initiatives that you can see in that slide there.

We also developed a set of guiding principles that are the foundations for our project. It is what we always refer back to when we are trying to make a decision on what way we are going to go. In terms of our proposal these are our principles: national leadership in museum management; cutting edge architectural design and engineering solutions; state-of-the-art collections management facilities and systems; enhanced public and community involvement; and creative engagement with museum staff and the museum community.

I am sure we have probably already spoken to a number of you here about our proposal. It is very important for the Museum to get feedback on some of the ideas that we are looking at here and incorporate those into our proposal going forward.

What does passive mean? ‘Passive’ basically means that you can create the desired environment within your space without the need for active systems so that no active heating, cooling, dehumidification or humidification is required. This obviously has some significant advantages which you can see up there [slide shown]. The targets that the Museum is working with now is a shift from traditional targets we have used previously in that we are looking at a relative humidity of 45 per cent plus or minus five degrees and we are targeting a temperature range of between 10 and 20 degrees, with a maximum temperature fluctuation not to exceed two degrees in 24 hours.

ERIC ARCHER: The change there is to go from tightly-controlled environmental set points to allowing a slow annual drift of the temperature and humidity. There is no documented evidence that says allowing a slow drift would cause any deterioration of collections. And also based on the feedback and conservations we have had with our colleagues both nationally and internationally, there is a growing willingness to accept a slow drift in temperature and humidity.

GREER GEHRT: Then we get into the issue of striking a balance. This means that the Museum has to significantly re-think the way the collection is managed in a passive space. How do we provide adequate access for retrievals, maintenance and research whilst maintaining stable environmental conditions? How do we maintain air quality for staff with very low air infiltration rates? How do we manage buffering characteristics of the collection and maintain stable environmental conditions? I will get Eric to talk through these in a bit more detail.

ERIC ARCHER: These three issues that came up – access, air quality and buffering – are quite significant and touch on a lot of themes that we talked about this morning. It adds a whole new dimension to the discussion about access because in providing a sustainable, low energy environmental store, it means that you have to reduce the air flow, which means you have to reduce the number of people you can allow into a store. It has some very serious or major implications for how we traditionally we have accessed stores and in a way it even provides less access than currently we are now used to. It is important that we look at these issues and look at other ways in which we can provide that access.

We need to ensure that we have adequate staff to access the collections. So we need to provide additional study rooms where objects can be taken out of the storage areas and viewed for research. The issue of access, which is so dependent on air quality, means that in order to deliver low energy store the actual air quality reduces significantly. The air quality can be maintained through high efficiency filters and through impeller fans which prevent the layering of air and also by bringing in free air when the conditions are appropriate. We had a big concern about maintaining air quality both for the objects and for staff, and then how we get around that, how do we build a new way of accessing the collections?

The other issue we had were the buffering characteristics both of the building itself and of the collection. A passive store requires considerable and very carefully thought out buffering qualities, and this is usually to be found in the nature of the building, in the solid construction of the building, the orientation of the building on the site, and also buffering on the wall. But there is an additional buffering effect which is provided by the collection. This buffering effect has more of a stabilising effect on the environmental conditions rather than providing that stable temperature and humidity. So it is a stabilising effect rather than relying on the collection to deliver the buffering. I will hand back to Greer.

GREER GEHRT: Then to move on: in October last year Eric and I primarily went to Copenhagen to attend low energy climate workshops but we were also interested in going and having a look at public access to stores that other institutions were doing as well as having a look to see if any other institutions were doing any retrofitting of existing spaces using passive means – so moving away completely from the idea of mechanically controlling their internal environments.

The first place that we went to was the Imperial War Museum in London. [Image shown] I like this shot it immediately tells you where you are. We first went there because they are looking at a much smaller scale project, but what they are doing is containing a passive retrofit within an existing space. This largely consists of blocking up existing windows and trying to well seal this particular area so that they are reducing the amount of air infiltration into the space. They are doing it through putting air locks in and creating a fabulously sealed box within the space.

The reason they have chosen this particular location is because of its orientation. They have done some studies in terms of the temperature readings they get outside and the amount of sun that hits this part of the building in order to determine what materials they need to use to buffer this space in order to create and to achieve the passive environments that they need.

The area will be used for the storage of their art and archival collections. It is approximately 2000 square metres over two levels. They are about half way through the project at the moment. It is a really interesting smaller-scale passive project. They have a similar way of getting funding for these projects as we do here in Australia.

The next place we visited – I would say to Christopher [Snelling] who just talked from the Powerhouse Museum that this is perhaps that next stage of public access to storage collections. This has just recently opened: it is stage two of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in London [image shown]. You can see this incredible cocoon structure which sits pretty much within a glass box, which can cause some issues. This structure is an eight-storey high structure which accommodates all of the entomology collections of the Natural History Museum. This is a section through the cocoon structure [image shown]. You can see that the top three levels of the space are open for public access; the bottom four levels of the space are not for public access; but they have tried to open up as much of their collection as they possibly could for the public. And perhaps, in line with what Chris was saying, it provides that line of how much public access you can allow and still having some closed areas.

These images show views into the central core of that particular space. Wherever you are walking around those top three levels you can see into the stores. The Natural History Museum spent about three years working with their staff in their conservation team and collections management team to work out what would be an acceptable level of interaction with the public. It is actually written into their work agreements that they must have some form of interaction with the public but they could have some choice in terms of how that would be – whether it would be, as you see here, they would actually talk to the public. The public press a button and then they can talk to the scientists. Or whether it be that they make a video or something like that so they are not having to have complete face-to-face contact.

The other thing they have done is that they have put the labs at split levels so that you are not eye to eye constantly with people as they are walking through, which does make it easier for staff not to be completely distracted by people. They also have programmed public access. There are times when perhaps they are working on a particular project that the public don’t go through the space.

Then to move on the low energy climate workshop that we attended [image shown] this was a picture of our classroom and the lovely spot where it was located. This slide lists the different institutions that attended that workshop. These institutions are all working on projects similar to ours at the moment. It shows the majority of those institutions are considering going for a passive model or a passive hybrid model, which basically means that for some of the institutions during the very cold months in Europe, they need to add some conservation heating to their space to achieve the conditions that they require.

The key points that we got from the workshop were that none of the ideas we are looking at are new at all. The inspiration really comes from ancient technologies and knowledge. The main principles are about thinking local: thinking about your local geography, understanding the climate conditions, collecting lots of data, understanding what the temperature is like on every single side of your store, and understanding what it’s like inside the store, and then if you have a box within the box type of scenario inside the box – collecting all of that data to understand what you have. [Another principle is] using local building materials and local trades but perhaps taking inspiration from other countries.

In Canberra we are very fortunate because building pretty much a completely passive building is entirely achievable here. There will always be parts of our collection that we need conditions storage areas for, but in Canberra we have the ideal conditions for this type of project. Also an interesting fact is that the concrete slab that the building sits on is 10 times more important than any other part of the building, so more important in terms of providing stability for the environmental conditions than any other aspect of the building. In addition, our colleagues in European institutions are accepting much broader bands of bands of temperature and humidity.

In a perfect world, if it all came together, this is perhaps what the Centre for National Museum of Australia Collections could potentially look like [image shown]. In this concept we have considered all of those aspects that I have just talked about in terms of building orientation, building solid, building thick walls, building to last and making sure that we do everything we can to look at our environment and take those conditions into consideration. This is a plan of the proposed interior [shows image]. The top box is the main stores area, the second one down is where largely the conservation labs could be located, and then in the front one is where our public access space is, our offices, and our secret sacred and repatriation spaces. You can see the dotted lines indicate a public access route through all three buildings. This is really a suggestion more than anything in terms of some of the opportunities we could open up for public access.

I would like to thank the whole team for being involved in developing the detailed business case, and hopefully at some stage we will see it realised. Thank you.

Date published: 10 June 2010