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Active & intelligent PAckaging materials and display cases as a tool for preventive conservation of Cultural Heritage.

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Intelligent tools to protect our cultural heritage

An EU-funded project took cultural heritage conservation to the next level, using the latest advancements in chemistry and materials science to ensure the smartest and safest storage of our past.

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Most people think that once an important cultural heritage artefact is put on display or stored at a museum, it’s in safe hands. But even inside secure four walls and under surveillance of experts, these items are at risk from unstable climate conditions, light and pollution. “Some modern packaging materials include pollutant absorbers, but they are mostly short-term solutions that cannot provide the long term stability (more than 50 years) which is the mandatory requirement for the conservation of cultural heritage items,” says Piero Baglioni, professor of Physical Chemistry at the Center for Colloid and Surface Science (CSGI), University of Florence, an expert in modern techniques for art conservation and restoration.

From remedial to preventive conservation

The International Council of Museums – Committee for Conservation distinguishes between three types of conservation: preventative conservation, remedial conservation, and restoration. While preventive conservation activities aim to avoid and minimise future deterioration, remedial conservation tries to stop ongoing damaging processes. Restoration actions are carried out when an item has already undergone severe deterioration. “We realised that the principles and expertise we have gathered in the framework of materials and soft matter for remedial conservation could be easily transferred to the formulation of advanced tools for preventive conservation,” says Baglioni, who coordinated the EU funded APACHE project. The project’s goal was to develop practical, easy-to-use and affordable preventive conservation solutions for small and medium sized museums, galleries, deposits and libraries. APACHE focused on two aspects of preventive conservation. The first was active packaging and display case solutions with the overall goal of creating a stable climate using materials that have an active influence on and interact with the packed objects. The second focus was intelligent packaging and display cases tools. This included tools that give an additional function to the packaging, such as sensors that monitor the condition of the packed object or its surrounding atmosphere. “We were surprised by how well some relatively humble materials performed in absorbing pollutants or regulating temperature and relative humidity, all detrimental factors in the preventive conservation of masterpieces and collections,” says Baglioni.

Making an impact

The project produced several patents and trademarks, and some of its most promising solutions are already on the market. For example, a new environmentally friendly pollutant absorber was developed at CSGI. Based on castor oil and inorganic nanoparticles, the absorber is already being distributed worldwide. Another project highlight is a sustainable bio-based material able to pull 400 % more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and pollutants from the air compared to competitive benchmarks. This innovation developed by Chalmers University is produced by the research-based spin-out Absorbi. Project partner ZFB, a reference SME in conservation solutions, active since 1997, developed a smart archive box. According to Baglioni, more products are expected to hit the market in 1-3 years, including VOC multitrack sensors and display cases that accommodate the new filtering systems and sensing tools. “In the end, we had the best outcome we could possibly think of,” Baglioni concludes. “The preventive conservation solutions developed within APACHE make possible the safe exhibition, transport and fruition of a wide number of artefacts, allowing their transfer to future generations and promoting the tourism industry.”


APACHE, preventive conservation, artefact, remedial conservation, display case, pollutant absorber, VOC, active packaging, intelligent packaging, volatile organic compounds

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