How long should conservators protect David Beckham’s football?
It’s a hypothetical question, really, because Beckham has certainly owned a lot of footballs.
But let’s just consider the ball that he famously kicked in 1996 from the halfway line, the one that landed spectacularly in Wimbledon’s net and helped make him famous in both the UK and abroad.
So you could argue that this ball should end up in a British museum, given Beckham’s huge impact on sports culture in the UK at the turn of the 21st century. Kept under the right temperature, humidity, and light conditions, a leather object like his football could potentially last thousands of years before degrading into a mess of gelatinized protein.
But really, should a museum pay the energy bills to keep his ball under optimal relative humidity, light levels and temperature so that it lasts for a millennium or two to come? Will people care about David Beckham’s ball in 50, 100, or even 500 years?
What about other cultural heritage objects, such as Albert Einstein’s papers? Or a Van Gogh painting? Or an Ansel Adams photograph? In other words, long should museum or archive collections be expected to last?
In principle “we’ve been working on the premise of forever. But that’s actually not realistic. Nothing lasts forever,” said Paula De Priest, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.
Last Thursday, De Priest and other cultural heritage researchers met in London to discuss the development of new ways to realistically assess and predict the lifetime of art and artifacts.
This new field of conservation science is called collections demography and it aims to make quantitative predictions about the possible and probable lifetimes of cultural heritage objects under different storage and display conditions.
The idea is to use mathematical risk algorithms to model the possible lifetimes of museum and archive collections, explained the University College London’s Matija Strlič, a collections demography researcher and the workshop’s host.
As energy costs rise and cultural heritage budgets tighten, these mathematical models will hopefully allow museum and archive staff to make informed, evidence-based decisions about how best to divvy up resources or what conservation strategies will keep a collection in good condition for a particular amount of time.
Strlič’s team is developing Excel-based spreadsheets that would allow museum staff to predict the possible lifetimes of museum or archive collections under various future scenarios. For example, the lifetime of a paper document will depend on the relative humidity and temperature of storage, how much light, pollution and handling the paper is subjected to, and what the paper’s pH is.
If you input specific storage and display conditions of a paper collection, the software predicts what fraction of the collection will be in good shape after a certain amount of time.
In practice this would help staff determine whether it is worth investing in pollution filters or cooling equipment or humidity-control technology to extend the lifetime of a paper collection if that collection would last a desired time without the interventions.
Strlič and his colleagues initially focused on paper collections degradation, since the area had 25 years of data to use in modeling algorithms. But the team is also starting to extend the work to painting canvases and photograph collections.
Of course one of the tough questions is how do you determine—or even quantify—the historical, spiritual, financial, scientific, aesthetic, educational and economic value of an object in order to determine a reasonable lifetime goal?
And who gets to make that decision? Museum curators? Funding bodies? Art historians? Academic researchers? The public? Me? (I mean, I’d rather invest in preserving Linus Pauling’s papers than David Beckham’s balls, but why should my opinion count more than a Beckham buff?)
Interestingly, UCL’s Catherine Dillon presented the results of a survey of 543 cultural heritage users: people who in some way accessed the collections held at the Library of Congress or the UK’s National Archives; or they visited historic houses in Britain; or they visited an exhibit at the National Archive.
When asked how long the users wanted the cultural heritage objects to last in a good enough state to be read or displayed, 52% of those surveyed said 100 years or less. Nearly 90 percent were satisfied with a lifetime of 500 years for cultural heritage objects. Only 9% said they wanted an object to last more than 1000 years.
How long do you think is a realistic lifespan for your favorite artifact?