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Atmospheric computer controls make intricate calculations to guarantee displays stay pristine


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POSTED: Monday, July 20, 2009

Science fiction authors are fond of saying that any advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That's pretty much the case with museum exhibits as well. These libraries of reality have to display rare and delicate artifacts in public spaces, when curators would prefer they be kept in a light-proof, insect-proof, humidity- and temperature-controlled vault far away from the dangers of public access.

But “;museums are all about putting objects on display,”; said Bishop Museum's Betty Kam, vice president for cultural collections. With the top-to-bottom renovation of Hawaiian Hall, for “;the first time we can control the temperature and humidity and lighting.”;

Here's the magic part, and it's all hidden from public view. Every aspect of conservation in every case in Hawaiian Hall is monitored, and can be tracked by the museum's computer system.

The visual sleight-of-hand extends to the armatures and various shapes that show off the artifacts, each one custom made, as objects range from incredibly delicate feather cloaks to 800-pound carved images.

“;Massive humongous big!”; said Kam. “;Some of these artifacts need mounts of brass or stainless steel to hold them up. And some cases are lined with a bed of stone. The trick is to create mounts that look as if they're not really there, but are also of neutral archival quality that won't attack the artifact. It's magical.”;

One safe medium is acrylic plastic, like Plexiglas. Shelving is regular glass—“;It's inert, sturdier and, frankly, prettier than acrylic”;—and armatures are painted with a water-based paint that doesn't outgas. “;They are dark gray, not black, and the color virtually disappears. More magic,”; said Kam.

Display technology from the vintage Victorian Age used cork walls to pin artifacts against. “;Cork is so acidic! It's horrifying,”; shivered Kam.

On the other hand, Hawaiian Hall's original designers actually had a pretty good display-case system. “;The cases are all designed to be airtight. It's pretty incredible craftsmanship for the time,”; said Kam. “;When you opened a case, you could feel a vacuum tugging.”;

The cases now are circulated with a “;very gentle vent system. When you turn on the lights, you can hear a very tiny whir of a little fan, balancing the air within the case.”;