Improving Our Galleries

Behind the scenes

Improving Our Galleries

Caring for our collections, the Gallery Improvement program at Auckland Museum.

In 2014-15 the Collection Care department conducted a survey of all light sensitive objects in our exhibitions and displays.

Why do we care about light sensitivity? 

Light causes permanent and irreversible damage that affects the chemical composition, physical structure, and, usually the most obvious, the appearance of the collection items.

There are no conservation treatments that can reverse light damage. Even if some visible manifestations of light damage can be lessened, the chemical and physical damage to the material is permanent.

Which materials are light sensitive?

  • poor quality paper (e.g. newsprint, many books printed after 1840)
  • textiles (e.g. garments, embroideries, upholstery, carpets, curtains, needlepoint)
  • dyed organic material (e.g. leather, wool tapestries)
  • watercolour paintings
  • drawings and documents with ball point or felt tip, iron gall ink, coloured pencils
  • photographs  (negatives, print slides and direct positives)

    Figure 1 (Image right): Designing a new mount for a Cook Island poncho

Figure 5 (above): Microfader set-up

What you need to know:

Remember that light damage is cumulative. It results from the intensity and duration of exposure. In other words, dim light over a long period of time is just as damaging as bright light over a short period of time.

In the survey through our permanent galleries we found that we had a high number of objects that had been exposed to more light that they should have, based on international standards in conservation.  Identifying this led to a trial run rotating objects in our Encounters Gallery. All textile and paper objects were replaced with a new selection of objects chosen by the curator for their suitability in the exhibition context.  Following that a contract team replaced all textiles in the Arts of Asia Gallery in 2016/17.

To continue this work on a permanent basis a new team was formed in late 2017. This consists of a collection manager, a conservator and two display technicians. The team works very closely with the curators in selecting suitable replacement objects. This is not always easy. In some situations there is not an object which fits the context or the space available in the showcase and some judicious redoing of the layout is needed. 


Figure 3. Mounting a new Samoan Tapa

Since the team started work in November 2017,  125 light sensitive objects have been replaced in the Pacific Lifeways and Pacific Masterpieces Galleries as well as numerous old mounts cleaned and improved and new labels printed. All newly selected objects have gone through conservation treatment and had new mounts made. In the Colours Gallery all flags have been rehoused in a new set of drawers, and the display was improved with a new film projection and new labels. 

This work will be ongoing in the permanent galleries. With the new tool of microfading technology available in the Conservation lab, every object going on display no matter how short a period will be tested for its fading rate. In the future this will allow us to design exhibitions with an object rotation plan already in place.

Figure 4. Mounting new objects in the Pacific Lifeways Gallery


What is microfading?

Microfading is an accelerated method for assessing the vulnerability of individual museum objects to light, including those for which the identity of the colorant is unknown. The results of the tests, which are nondestructive, help us determine the length of time an object can be exposed to light until the colours start to fade.

 Figure 5. New drawers and display

Why does the museum need a Gallery Improvement team?

At any given time thousands of objects are on display in the museum’s galleries. Many of those are made from materials which are light sensitive and should only be exposed to light for a limited duration. To protect and preserve our objects from any damage we need to selectively take them off display and replace them. This also offers our visitors the opportunity to see more of our collections. Having a permanent Gallery Improvement Team ensures dedicated museum staff is always available. It also enables long term planning for object rotations for all new exhibitions and displays in the museum. 

Post by: Sabine Weik
Conservator, Gallery Improvement