Art Under Climate Heat

Global warming has a direct impact on art conservation efforts. Museums and galleries in India are waging a war against climate change to defend their priceless collections and national heritage

A worker at Apparao Galleries treating artist Alexis Kersey’s work for fungus. Photograph: Apparao Galleries

What comes to your mind when you think of Chennai’s weather? Hot, dry and dusty? Over the past few years, paralysing floods have been altering that idea of the sultry city, leaving behind a trail of cultural destruction.

When the city was inundated by floods in 2021, some artworks at the Apparao Galleries ended up in the casualties’ list. The art gallery had escaped the onslaught of the unprecedented floods that had wrecked the city in 2015, but it was only a matter of time. Future monsoons are not going to have mercy on the gallery either with predictions of extensive rainfall during the northeast monsoon in the 2020-30 decade due to the El Nino phenomenon or the warming of the Pacific—as per a study conducted by the Centre for Climate Change and Disaster Management, Anna University and Chennai Institute of Technology—almost being a certainty.

Rare cameras and photography equipment on display at Museo Camera in Gurugram

Warning bells are not ringing in Chennai alone. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report has flagged concerns about extreme weather conditions across India. While it said that Mumbai was a high-risk city in terms of severe flooding and rising sea-levels, it warned that Ahmedabad could become a serious case of urban heat island. Several cities, including Chennai, Bhubaneswar, Patna and Lucknow, are approaching dangerous levels of heat and humidity, said the report. Even German NGO Germanwatch placed India on the seventh spot in the most vulnerable countries’ list under its Climate Risk Index in 2021.

Art Conservation during Climate Change

The altered weather patterns, a clear result of climate change, has impacted several spheres, and art has not been left untouched. As temperatures rise, museums, art institutions and artists across the country have started feeling the heat, as they battle intense humidity and extreme rains—weather conditions that pose challenges like fungal growth and brittleness in artworks. This, in turn, has placed preservation and restoration efforts carried out at galleries and museums under the spotlight.

Apparao Galleries’ owner Sharan Apparao says that the gallery’s restoration bills have gone up by 10% over the past five to six years, making her mull over the idea of investing in sophisticated systems and technology to deal with the ever-increasing rainfall level and its aftermath.

Vinod Daniel, a board member of the International Council of Museums and chairman of AusHeritage, says that flooding is the biggest challenge that museums face. Many museums store their art pieces in the basement, which often gets flooded during the prolonged monsoon season. “The world over, not more than 1% of the collection is on display. The rest lies in storage, and a very negligible part of the budget is spent on storage facilities,” he explains, adding that few museums install systems to combat flooding.

While fungus has always been a problem, Apparao says that the menace has only grown over the last five to six years. “Be it paper or oils—all kinds of works are attracting fungus. My clients keep calling me for the restoration of the pieces in their collections. We are changing storage facilities and are going to invest in dehumidifiers and powerful vacuum cleaners to suck moisture. We want to create a space to air out the work and are also going to invest in blowers to keep the air in circulation. I think it is going to cost me Rs 10 lakh to Rs 15 lakh,” laments Apparao.

Tech Interventions

Art institutions are not new to climate control systems and dehumidifiers. Museums and galleries across Europe use expensive heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that use a mix of technologies to control the humidity, temperature and quality of air. Back home, such systems are used optionally. Apparao, however, says that the fluctuating and unpredictable weather could soon make them a common part of the art ecosystem in India.

Bengaluru’s Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), which is working towards launching its new physical space in the latter part of 2022, has taken extensive measures to control temperature and humidity. Prior to this, MAP operated out of a space in the city’s Kasturba Road area which functioned without any frills. However, its new five-storey building, which will house art galleries, a research library, an education centre, a conservation lab and a terrace cafe, boasts many technological interventions. For instance, air handling units with a built-in heating coil connected to a heat pump to control relative humidity as per space, objects in that space and building-design requirements, have been installed in the new facility to take care of air conditioning.

The 2021 Chennai floods wreaked havoc at the Apparao Galleries as water entered the premises, damaging some of the artwork. Photograph: Apparao Galleries

The air conditioning system designed for MAP uses non-chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant, which does not add to environmental ozone depletion, says Rajeev Choudhary of MAP. “There is a panel to control temperature and humidity—the temperature range will be 23, plus or minus 2 degrees Celsius and the relative humidity range will be between 50% to 55%. The stainless steel cladding of parts of the building will give an opaque enclosure to the main galleries, which are important to protect artworks and artefacts from exposure to ultraviolet light,” he adds.

Choudhary, the conservator-restorer MAP, explains why his museum went for the added features: “As custodians of a growing number of artworks from all over the country, we must take preventive measures to safeguard the collection. Something as simple as direct sunlight exposure can make the colour of the painted artworks fade and deteriorate over time. Growth of microbes such as fungus and contraction and expansion due to a sudden change in weather which may result in deformation in artworks on paper, canvas, and wood are two major threats.”

Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, earlier known as Victoria & Albert Museum, the oldest museum in Mumbai, is carefully observing the steadily extending monsoon season in the city and has taken required action. Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, its managing trustee and director, says that they use a combination of high and low-cost solutions, such as dehumidifiers, weekly change in silica gel used for preservation in showcases and instruments to record temperature and humidity among other things to keep the growth of fungus—her biggest concern—in check.

“We reserve a considerable amount of the budget for upgrading and maintaining these systems as well as training the staff in preventive conservation. The expenditure will increase with investment in newer technologies for preventive care and the hiring of additional conservators,” she says.
Aditya Arya, founder and director, Museo Camera: Centre for the Photographic Arts in Gurugram, says, “A museum is supposed to be the storehouse of heritage. It should be able to pass it on to the next generation in the best possible way while engaging compellingly with the present generation. You have to use the right material to preserve your objects and have systems in place to ensure safety.”

Arya says that he opted to install moisture sensors in all four corners of his museum’s basement, self-triggered fire alarms and fire devices. He has also sealed the basement area to prevent any water seepage. There are dehumidifiers which check moisture levels every couple of hours.

Economics of Climatic Conservation

Conservation is expensive, but one can think green in conservation efforts. Arya says that getting through the pandemic was financially difficult and mitigation methods are expensive, adding that to manage, his group had to ask people to donate and also borrowed money. “During the pandemic, with no visitors and no inflow, how could a museum make money? While the inflow was zero, the outflow was humongous—to the extent that last year, we owed electricity bills worth Rs 42 lakh. I connected with corporates and did some research, and, now, we are on our way to install a 60-kW solar plant on our rooftop. It cost me Rs 40-50 lakh. Museums are closed on Mondays and the saved power will go back into the grid for which we will get credits,” he explains.

Sahapedia, an online resource on Indian art, culture and heritage, revealed in its Art and Culture Budget Guide of 2021 that the budgetary allocation for the Ministry of Art and Culture has remained marginal in the last decade, averaging at 0.11% of the total Union budget. The report emphasised that the allocation has consistently declined in the last five years. In 2021, the Centre slashed the funds allocated to the ministry by 21% in a mid-year revision of its budget during the lockdown. This year, however, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman proposed Rs 3,009 crore for the ministry, up from the Rs 2,688 crore that it was allocated in 2021.

Deepthi Sasidharan, founder and director, Eka Archiving Services, a cultural advisory firm that works with several museums across India, poses a pertinent question—in a country where people struggle even for the basics, how can art be prioritised? “In Mumbai, floods happen every year and parts of museums get submerged partially but never make it to the news. We are losing our heritage and our nation’s treasures to the effects of climate change. There is definitely concern among professionals, but we have to work within the system,” says the museologist.

Small players and government-led and funded art institutions and museums cannot afford to dedicate funds for buying sophisticated climate control or conservation systems. This is where collaborations come in—for the big and the small. Considered as one of the best museums in India, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum, keeps collaborating with private and public organisations for restoration and preservation work, including a comprehensive plan to upgrade all its storage facilities, one by one, with the support of the Citi Group.

Joyoti Roy, head of museum marketing, CSMVS, says, “At present, storage of our organic materials has been revamped. It has climate control, pest insulation and light filters. It is probably the most advanced and world-class art storage facility for ancient organic material in India. We have been able to balance our energy requirements to be able to focus on priority areas such as collections care.”

The museum, certified a green one by the Indian Green Building Council, uses solar energy to partially fulfil its energy requirements and also carries out rainwater harvesting. The museum is undertaking a comprehensive conservation project of the building to strengthen its fabric, renew waterproofing treatments and support vulnerable areas. This is being funded by the TCS Foundation.

Marrying Sustainability with Sustenance

To deal with the impact of climate change on art and artefacts, museum professionals vouch for solutions that are feasible and sustainable. Anupam Sah, head of art conservation, research and training, CSMVS Museum Art Conservation Centre, suggests solutions through sustainable architecture, adding that architects are the ones who will create buildings which will do away with artificial climate control systems.

“Fluctuation is key in climate control. Institutions are designed to cater to certain humidity and temperature levels but those are fluctuating. As architecture started to change, we resorted to using cement which never buffers any environmental change. Then, we brought in air conditioners, which caused damage to artworks. So, for me, a preventive conservation strategy, rather than remedial strategy, is effective,” he says.

Art historian Jyotindra Jain, who has headed the National Crafts Museum and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in the past, feels that climate change should be introduced as a subject in museology. “It is not feasible to run air conditioners 24/7. So, what happens after a museum shuts down, say, at 5:30 pm? With its doors and windows closed and AC switched off, moisture gets stuck. Display, lighting and conservation are all part of museology but not climate change and how to adapt and work around it. I feel the course should expand to include climate change and application of practical solutions,” says Jain.

Over the past few years, artists across the globe have been contributing to the climate change discourse with their vivid interpretations. The altering weather patterns have put the messengers themselves on the hot seat.