Conserving Art While Conserving Energy

In 2022 a famous 18th-century painting traveled over 5,000 miles by plane in a double-crate system carefully crafted by Getty Museum preparators.

Often referred to as The Blue Boy, the painting, A Portrait of a Young Gentleman by Thomas Gainsborough, was on display at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens for 100 years before making the long trek to the National Gallery in London for a four-month exhibition.

The Blue Boy’s advanced crate was designed to mitigate potential extremes in shock, vibration, temperature, and relative humidity. Sensors installed at the back of the frame and on the inner and outer crates collected data on the work’s transit environment, all of which was tracked by the Managing Collection Environments (MCE) team at the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI).

The resulting data showed a stable environment during the painting’s journey and was added to MCE’s expansive database to help inform professionals about potential risks during an object’s loan process.

The Blue Boy required such careful handling and tracking because extremes in shock, vibration, temperature, and relative humidity can cause artworks to break, decay, or fade. Since the 1970s, museum professionals have adhered to a strict set of climate control guidelines: art objects must be kept at a temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (plus or minus four degrees) with a relative humidity of 50 percent (plus or minus three percent), to be precise. But this limited range requires large amounts of energy, is expensive, and can be extremely difficult to sustain. As climate change continues to put pressure on how institutions operate, museum professionals around the world are facing the new climate reality with urgency and proposing mitigation solutions.

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