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Letter to the editor: 'Priceless Oxford exhibits fry under a clean glass roof'

Icon responds to the Telegraph following its report on ​sun damage at Oxford University's Natural History Museum

Dear Editor,

It is very discouraging to read in 'Priceless Oxford exhibits fry under a clean glass roof’ (28th July 2016) that changes to the roof of the Natural History Museum have led to irreversible damage to its priceless collections. This would suggest that the University of Oxford did not include an adequate risk assessment of the impact of the restoration of the roof on the Museum’s collections. Professional conservators or heritage scientists are very used to commenting at an early stage of the project planning process. Had this been the case, I feel sure that this would have been one of the first questions asked. Actions could have then been taken to mitigate the risks of damage to the collections caused by changes to the roof. We encourage the University of Oxford to find ways of protecting its collection from damaging levels of ultraviolet light, temperature and relative humidity. 

Conservators and scientists appreciate that it is not always easy to reach a suitable compromise between preserving the characteristics of an historic building which merit its Grade I listed status and meeting the requirements of the museum’s primary purpose, to preserve its collections. However, all over the UK important collections are held in buildings that were designed before electric light was available (and even before gas lighting – the V&A was the first museum to use this) with glass roofs to optimize the amount of daylight for viewing the collections. With the right advice from experts working together – conservators, curators, designers, scientists, engineers and architects – museums are able to adapt their buildings to display their collections with manageable levels of risk.

There are many ways this can be done and some of these are very sophisticated indeed. For example, Hampton Court Palace (another Grade I listed building) is currently piloting “smart” protective film on windows which changes opacity according to the level of ultra-violet light. With the right expert advice it should be possible to find a method that protects visitors and collections while having a low impact on both the historic fabric of the building and the environment.

It is encouraging that the University is planning to address these issues and, while this has been a challenging matter for the University, we hope that it will be a reminder that expert conservation advice can help avoid expensive mistakes.

Yours sincerely,

Alison Richmond, Chief Executive
Icon, the Institute of Conservation

Unit 3.G.2
The Leathermarket
Weston Street
London SE1 3ER​
020 3142 6799

Lead image: Oxford University Natural History Museum; Jorge Royan, CC BY-SA 3.0


The views expressed in these comments are the views of the individual and do not reflect the views of The Institute of Conservation. Any comments containing inappropriate language or copyright material will be removed.

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