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RIT project helps museums protect their collections

For precious artifacts and cherished documents, time is the enemy. Now, technology being developed by RIT's Image Permanence Institute may dramatically slow down the clock.

As part of a $1.1 million project, IPI invited libraries, archives and museums from across the United States to participate in a two-year study of a system for preservation-environment assessment. The aim is to evaluate the technology and create a database of environmental requirements for specific types of museum objects.

IPI provided hardware, software and training to about 180 test sites in 43 states. Participating institutions include Rochester's George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

The priceless collections at Rochester's George Eastman House, such as this historic photo, are getting some added protection from an environmental monitoring system developed at RIT.
Each site has received two preservation environment monitors that look very much like home thermostat units. A software application called Climate Notebook accompanies the monitors, providing improved interpretation and reporting capabilities for temperature and humidity data collected from those units. Analysis of the information allows staff members at the test locations to pinpoint environmental conditions for optimal preservation.

"This brings to fruition 20 years of laboratory research at RIT and elsewhere," says James Reilly, IPI director. "The response from museums has been overwhelming. They're telling us, We need this technology now.'"

Grant Romer, director of conservation at the George Eastman House, couldn't agree more. "It's extraordinarily important for our collection of items," Romer explains. "What has happened in the past is that people tried to monitor conditions in the vault. It's a difficult process and provided little understanding of the long-term impact on the collection. This device, and the service that it provides, quantifies the information and gives a clearer picture."

To help finance the project, IPI received $735,000 in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. RIT provided the remainder in matching funds.

The Image Permanence Institute, a department of the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, was founded in 1985 as a nonprofit research laboratory.