How to protect the world’s art treasures from climate change

Many techniques and strategies are being put in place to protect large museums and collections from the hazards of global warming

Cambio Climático Obras Arte Museo
A sculpture rests in the Louvre’s conservation center in Liévin, France.DMITRY KOSTYUKOV (The New York T
Miguel Ángel García Vega

Sometimes it seems like the world is flooding. Other times, it’s on fire. This has been seen from Rhodes and Corfu (Greece) to Palermo and Messina (Italy) and Cascais (Portugal) or Quebec (Canada). The ground burns and, as the mercury rises, the heat puts the world’s artistic heritage in a bind. The climate emergency is descending into Dante’s inferno. In Spain, the Prado and the Reina Sofía museums are a great cause of concern. The latter is more threatened by water than by flames; a stream flows underground, and explosive cyclogeneses are unpredictable. The former has a security protocol that is not public. Some paintings are geolocated with chips. But not many; the technology is expensive.

The Reina Sofía — explains restorer Manuela Gómez — writes its rules on the granite of its walls. The temperature in the exhibition areas is 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). A variation of ±2 is allowed. The margin is identical for humidity (50%). They have been working on a security plan for years: the rooms will have personal protective equipment (similar to that used by healthcare workers during the pandemic) and fire blankets. In addition, there will be a digital alarm system linked to the fire department; a screen will show them the problem and its location, so they can put together a strategy without delay. Because the difference between a Picasso being preserved or being destroyed can be a matter of minutes. Even seconds.

The past has put the present of art on alert. The historic Hurricane Sandy, which flooded New York in 2012, fell from the sky like an omen. “Art storage facilities have been removed from flood risk areas,” explains curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro. Storage giants — like UOVO, which has 10 locations in the United States — are protecting themselves from a potential disaster. Its warehouses located in risky places, like the one in the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami, are built 18 feet above sea level and can withstand a category 5 hurricane (with winds of up to 70 miles per hour).

To protect itself from possible flooding, in 2024 the Louvre will move 250,000 works to its conservation center in the commune of Liévin, in the north of France, one hour from Paris by high-speed train. This might be, they say, the largest movement of pieces of art in history. It was necessary: the banks of the Seine, where the museum is located, are very vulnerable to flooding. Some of its galleries and storage rooms are practically under the river, so a flood would put hundreds of works at risk. Only an irresponsible person would jeopardize their Caravaggios, Leonardos or Goyas.

Back in the U.S., despite the fact that flames already surrounded the Getty Center, in California, in October 2019, trust is the main prevention system. The Center is confident that its building (built with marble and cement and protected by steel) is capable of withstanding fire; even its extensive green area, with systematically pruned oak trees, would act as a retardant if a fire breaks out, the institution maintains. Nobody wants to lose their assets. The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, in New York, has created the most ambitious private program in the country’s artistic history (with a budget of $10 million) to confront — through subsidies — the climate crisis. The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) is designing a cold storage vault. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is building something unprecedented: a floating gallery on a barge on the Delaware River. And the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is tapping into funds from the Frankenthaler Climate Initiative. Who wants to slow dance in a burning room?

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