Museums are in the business of conserving art. But what about conserving the world's energy and other natural resources? It turns out the Mead Art Museum
at Amherst College is on top of that, too.
Up on a 12-foot ladder in the Mead's main gallery, Tim Gilfillan, the museum's preparator, is doing both: replacing halogen light bulbs with light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs that are more energy efficient but just as safe for the museum's collection.
All light is potentially damaging. That unavoidable fact was the premise of the symposium Gilfillan attended at the Smithsonian in Washington last March on the topic of LED lighting in museums. After years of research (LEDs have been around since the 1960s), most art curators and conservators these days agree that LED lighting is as innocuous - and just as high quality - as conventional lighting. Meanwhile, the cost of LED bulbs, once exorbitant, is now within reach of museums both large and small.
Since March, Gilfillan has replaced about 120 90-watt halogen bulbs in the Mead galleries with the same number of 12-watt LEDs, yielding the same brightness as before, while reducing energy use by 87%. There are still some 80 halogens in use at the moment, almost all in the galleries that feature works on paper, which require lower light levels and are the most vulnerable to light damage. Gilfillan said he's doing additional research into the best LED lighting for these fragile works. By spring of 2014 he imagines the changeover to LED lighting in all the galleries will be complete.
LEDs produce visually attractive light and accurately rendered color while saving energy. In tests conducted by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (according to a presenter at the symposium Gilfillan attended), museum visitors "did not prefer the look of traditional halogen lighting." In fact, in the galleries lit with LEDs, "staff and visitors noticed . . . the blues and greens were more vibrant, there was more depth to paintings, and frames visually popped more."
The decreased wattage at the Mead yields immediate savings for Amherst College. An added benefit is that LEDs generate less light-produced heat than conventional incandescent and halogen bulbs. Less heat means less work for the museum's air conditioning, and less air conditioning means an even lower electric bill. LEDs also last a lot longer than conventional bulbs, so the Mead ultimately buys fewer-which saves money and generates less waste - and Gilfillan spends less time replacing them.
All museums are high energy users because of the need to provide stable humidity and temperature levels around the clock for conservation purposes. But rather than let Amherst's art collection enjoy all the benefits of a comfortable, controlled environment night and day by itself, the Mead - in a move that's unusual for any museum, let alone a college museum - opens its doors to visitors nearly 80 hours per week during the academic year. That's more than double the number of hours most museums are open. It's a better use of resources, said Mead director Dr. Elizabeth E. Barker, to welcome the public into a museum that's by necessity warmed all winter and cooled all summer.
Paint is another environmental issue museums grapple with. Not the paint on Monet's Morning on the Seine, which has been dry for well over a hundred years, but the fresh paint on the wall behind the masterpiece.
Before new exhibitions open at the Mead, the galleries are often given fresh coats of paint. Until recently, most of that paint contained volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that were released into the air. The fumes hung around not just the day the paint was applied, but long after, which can lead to the formation of ozone and air pollution linked to breathing problems, nausea, and headaches. Nowadays, Gilfillan said, it's easy to obtain paint that contains either no VOCs or low amounts. The Mead's paint qualifies as low-VOC (under 50 g/L for flat paint), which keeps the air in the galleries fresh, clean, and healthy.
Other eco-friendly practices at the Mead include motion-sensitive light sensors in the lobby and public restrooms, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) in the café, assiduous recycling of light bulbs and batteries, and reuse of exhibition materials and shipping crates. "I love recycling," said Gilfillan, an inveterate reuser of mat-board scraps and packing material, including bubble wrap. He also routinely reuses exhibition furniture, such as pedestals and display cases. And the packing crates that many works of art are cushioned in when they arrive at the Mead? They're now repurposed at Book & Plow, the farm that leases land on the Amherst College campus and supplies Valentine Dining Hall, as well as the larger Five College community, with fresh produce. Farmer Peter McLean can repurpose the Mead's leftover wooden crates for "any number of projects," he said, including "fixing or building another chicken coop or pig house, framing a door inside our greenhouse, and building shelving in the greenhouse, sheds, or barn."
Green initiatives are also at work in the Mead's lobby, which features a café, bookstore, and gift shop. Unlike a typical museum shop that sells mass-produced merchandise made and shipped from thousands of miles away, items in the Mead Vintage section of the shop are classic objets d'art that local volunteers discover and refurbish as needed. It's the only museum shop of its kind, said Barker, selling vintage goods. Vintage frames that newly acquired Mead artworks may have come to the museum in, but which are not quite museum quality, are also sold in the shop. And the Mead donates many more such frames to Amherst College art students.
The book section of the shop sells recently published Mead catalogues that are printed by a Connecticut-based company certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. And the coffee in the Mead Café - served in biodegradable cups made from renewable resources - is made from Dean's Beans, a roaster whose beans are grown in accordance with international safe-practice standards that protect farmers and their environment. Dean's Beans roasts the beans in Orange, Massachusetts, about 22 miles from Amherst. In the new year, the café will even begin composting.
So what's Gilfillan doing with all the time and energy the new LED bulbs are saving him? Turns out he's busy as ever, preparing for the Mead's upcoming show, New Arrivals, which opens Feb. 14, 2014. Stop by, and see how green the Mead is for yourself.