On Display: How to Guard Against Damage to Art Collections


Whether a corporate collection adorning an office building, public artwork exhibited in municipal buildings, or heirlooms on display in a historical home, special attention should be paid to artwork at high risk of bumps, splashes and natural disasters. Worst-case scenarios for collections involve disasters such as a fire or flood; not only is there the primary cause of damage, there will likely be additional exposures — for example artwork with fire damage will often also have water damage from the efforts of first responders working to save the building. Unless the art collection is specifically included an emergency evacuation plan, the collection will likely remain in the damaged building until it can be reached by restoration crews. However, precautionary steps in framing, storage, and display can mitigate the extent of the damage.

When The Conservation Center was called in to rescue and preserve LaSalle Bank’s extensive photography collection following a fire in 2004, the benefits of precautionary steps were obvious. Though a few photographs too close to the core of the fire were irreversibly charred, the majority of the collection was repairable in part due to the professional matting and framing. Without proper housing, those photographs which had escaped the fire itself might have been water damaged by fire hoses, or marred by soot and smoke.

The method and materials of an artwork’s housing correlates to its longevity and safety. The housing materials that the artwork is in direct contact with can have detrimental effects, such as discoloration from an acidic mat: in addition to darkening, this can cause embrittlement to the piece. If an artwork was framed more than twenty years ago, it’s likely that acidic supplies were used. The availability of archival materials has improved over the last two decades, thus the archival quality of the framing supplies used can vary greatly with the framer and when it was framed. Appropriate hinging that is reversible can allow for the removal of damaged materials without altering the work. Even the choice of framing glass makes a difference; the use of UV glazing can help prevent fading, and choosing acrylic glazing instead of glass can provide more security for some pieces since it does not shatter. An encapsulated, sealed assembly can further protect the piece from potential water exposure and contamination.

Once suitably housed, the piece should be stored or displayed appropriately and carefully. Proper storage solutions, not just for transporting artwork but also for those works that are not currently displayed, are an integral part of maintaining a corporate collection. In the case of businesses with large art holdings or with archives that are not displayed, a large proportion of their collection might be in storage at any point in time: pieces should be stored securely, in archival housing and monitored regularly. Items should be stored on appropriate racking, flat files, or shelving, and should not stand directly on the floor. They can also be packed to prevent dust accumulation and additional handling. Artwork in long term storage should be checked regularly.

For an object or artwork on display, care should be taken to ensure against possible damage, especially in situations where the art is displayed in busy public areas. Framed pieces should be equipped with adequate hanging and security hardware,  so that the piece cannot be easily removed from the wall. Sculptures and objects should be attached to a stand, while smaller objects should be secured and protected with a vitrine. Well-housed artwork should be able to survive an accidental knock or fall while on display without damaging the piece. With the right precautions taken, a collection can be safely maintained and displayed for future generations while maintaining the organization’s art assets.


If you need professional help, contact a professional or someone at the Conservation Center