A Public Trust at Risk
Peg Eby-Jager writes "A Public at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State
of America's Collections has been placed online in its entirety
at http://www.heritagehealthindex.org/ and identifies urgent need for environmental controls
The first comprehensive survey ever to assess the condition of
U.S. collections concludes that immediate action is needed to
prevent the loss of millions of irreplaceable artifacts held in
public trust. Improper storage conditions and the lack of
realistic disaster planning top the list of chronic problems.
Heritage Preservation, the country's leading conservation
advocate, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and
Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency, details these and
other findings in A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health
Index Report on the State of America's Collections.
Key findings of the report include:
* 80% of U.S. collecting institutions do not have an
emergency plan to protect collections with staff trained
to carry it out * 65% of collecting institutions have experienced damage
to collections due to improper storage
* 190 million objects are in urgent need of conservation
* The most urgent need at U.S. collecting institutions is
"A Public Trust at Risk concludes that only very few collecting
institutions in the U.S. have enough funding to ensure the
safety of their collections. Heritage Preservation urges private
donors and public officials nationwide to lead new efforts to
preserve the nation's collected heritage, in light of this and
other of the report's findings,"
says Debra Hess Norris, Chairperson of Heritage Preservation and
Chair and Professor, Art Conservation Program, University of
The Heritage Health Index survey is unique in examining the
state of preservation across the entire spectrum of collecting
institutions, large and small, from internationally renowned art
museums and research libraries to local historical societies and
The report chronicles the preservation needs of 4.8 billion
artifacts held in U.S. collections, among them rare books,
manuscripts, photographs, prints, maps, films, videos, sound
recordings, digital materials, sculptures, paintings, drawings,
textiles, flags, airplanes, furniture, toys, shells, animal and
plant specimens, fossils, and prehistoric pottery shards.
"I cannot think of an area of public life supported by as little
reliable data as that of our nation's collections-up until
today," says Lawrence L. Reger, President of Heritage
Preservation. "Now, with an accurate picture resulting from the
Heritage Health Index, leaders in the private and public sectors
can make better informed decisions about issues of stewardship."
The product of extensive planning and a year-long implementation
process, A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index
Report on the State of America's Collections was made possible
by major support from the IMLS and the Getty Foundation, with
additional generous grants from The Henry Luce Foundation, The
Samuel H. Kress Foundation, The Bay and Paul Foundations, The
Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and The Gladys Krieble Delmas
"Collections are the foundation of everything that takes place
in museums, libraries and archives," says Mary Chute, acting
director of the IMLS. "They are vitally important, in part
because objects take on unanticipated and surprising meanings
over time. For instance, a botanical specimen we know little
about today may yield clues to the cure of a disease tomorrow." Environment is the Worst Enemy
The Heritage Health Index finds that the conditions in which
objects are stored often pose the chief threat to collections.
Data shows that collections in a quarter of American collecting
institutions are vulnerable to all three of the greatest threats
to delicate objects-fluctuations in temperature, light, and
humidity-because these institutions report having no
environmental controls to protect collections.
Sixty-five percent of the collecting institutions in the country
reported that parts of their collections have been damaged in
the past due to improper storage. Nearly as many reported that
they store a large part of their collections in areas that are
overcrowded and therefore susceptible to damage.
In A Public Trust at Risk, Heritage Preservation shows that
millions of historic documents, photographs, and other objects
are kept in areas where they are vulnerable to flooding,
over-heating, light, and infestation by insects. Many are
crowded onto shelves, where condition problems go undetected.
Others are stored in acidic containers and, thus, vulnerable to
a slow decay brought about by leaching acids and other
Says Reger: "The Heritage Health Index was conducted during one
of the great waves of museum building and expansion in U.S.
history. Yet the data shows that we still have a long way to go
to provide safe facilities for collections, not just in museums,
but in libraries, historical societies, and other collecting
institutions. As trustees, government officials, and
institutional leaders plan capital projects, we urge them to
ensure that the basic needs of collections are addressed." Collections Vulnerable to Swift and Catastrophic Loss
Emergencies are inevitable facts of life, from major disasters
like Hurricane Katrina to more quotidian occurrences like
leaking water pipes. Yet A Public Trust at Risk found that fully
80% of American collecting institutions do not have an emergency
plan with staff members trained to carry it out. Extrapolating
from that statistic, Heritage Preservation estimates that more
than 2.6 billion objects are at risk from disaster striking
their home institutions.
"The high percentage of museums, libraries, and other
collections without an emergency preparedness plan is one of the
surprises of this report, and a cause for alarm," says Reger.
"Every collecting institution should have an emergency
preparedness plan that includes its collections, and staff
should be trained to implement the plan.
"We know that in a disaster, after seeing to personal safety,
shelter, and food, people turn to the things in life that they
care about most-their family pictures, mementos, and prized
possessions. In a similar way, public collections reflect the
shared memories and aspirations of the nation, and must be
guarded," he concludes. Staffing and Funding
The survey found that 80% of institutions nationwide have no
paid staff dedicated to collections care. Without trained
personnel, it is difficult to address many of problems
identified by the survey.
Many collecting institutions are not sure what is in their
collections or what condition they are in. 70% of organizations
nationwide do not have an up-to-date assessment of the condition
of their collections.
"Staffing need not remain the problem it is today. Not every
collection requires a full-time professional conservator, but
staff can be assigned and trained to oversee the basics of
caring for holdings," concludes Chute.
Underlying the pervasive problem of staffing--and, indeed, all
the problems cited in the Heritage Health Index--is the report's
finding that only 40% of organizations in the U.S. regularly
allocate funds for care of their collections. This being the
case, small problems can become expensive ones, for a dollar
spent on a safe environment is repaid several times over by the
money saved on conservation treatments.
"Care of collections need not be a drain on resources.
Conservation is a subject that can engage the public, encourage
participation in an institution, and attract financial support,"
says Chute of the IMLS. The Smithsonian American Art Museum
discovered that its audience was curious about conservation
through a series of surveys and focus groups. Now, when the
museum reopens in Summer 2006, its Lunder Conservation Center
will offer visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how art is
Norris pointed out that while the survey's findings are
alarming, significant progress has been made in the past twenty
years, due in part to attention at the federal level and from
several national foundations. "Had this survey been conducted in
1984, the results would have shown an even worse situation." Methodology
More than a hundred collections professionals helped to develop
the Heritage Health Index, which was completed by the staff
members of 3,370 museums, archives, historical societies,
libraries, and scientific research organizations throughout the
country. Responders ranged from small, regional collections,
like the Hooker County Library in Nebraska, to the largest and
most prestigious in the nation. These include the Smithsonian
Institution's museums and centers, all the units of the National
Archives and Records Administration (including presidential
libraries), the Library of Congress, The New York Public
Library, the American Museum of Natural History, the Harvard
University Libraries and Art Museums, the Metropolitan Museum of
Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art
Institute of Chicago, the University of California, Berkeley
Libraries, and major National Park Service sites. The RMC
Research Corporation of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, collected and
tabulated data and consulted with Heritage Preservation on data