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Hrant Galstyan

Armenia’s National Gallery: Heat, Dust and Sunlight Threaten Valuable Artworks

More than 25,000 local and international artworks are stored in the National Gallery of Armenia, located in Yerevan.

The collection of paintings includes works by Hakob Hovnatanyan, Vardges Surenyants, Martiros Saryan, Ivan Aivazovsky, Ilya Repin, Tintoretto, Rubens and Jan van Goyen. Experts claim that most of these pictures, some centuries-old, are in danger.

The gallery’s halls lack the required temperature and humidity, and the images are exposed to ultraviolet rays and dust.

The administration of the gallery and the Ministry of Culture acknowledge the problem, but even the fate of the gallery building is uncertain.

In the summer, the air temps in the gallery can rise to more than 35℃. International standards set the safest temperature for museums at 24℃. Artist Edgar Amroyan, who frequently visits European museums, says that this figure can fluctuate up to 1.5 degrees.

"This means that even if you calculate 25.5℃ with the fluctuation, it passes the permitted limit by 10-12 degrees. If you touch the pictures in the summer, they feel like a boiling teapot, and the sound of cracking is heard. That’s how terrible the situation is," says the painter.

Temperature and relative humidity are among the environmental factors that can contribute to the deterioration of valuable collections. According to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the possible consequences of very high or very low temperatures and relative humidity are physical damage (e.g. distortion, crack, separation of canvas and paint), chemical degradation, as well as activation of insects and fungi. Temperature and humidity are interconnected, but a temperature increase is enough to speed up the chemical processes. At 30℃, some of the corrosive reactions can be twice as fast as at 20℃.

ICOM states that the temperature in showrooms (as well as the storage areas) must be constant, within the range of 18-22℃. Other sources state 19-24℃ as desirable. The relative humidity should be between 45 and 55%.

Temperature and humidity in the National Gallery of Armenia are rarely within this desirable range. Results of monitoring provided by the Ministry of Culture show that the average temperature in winter hardly reaches 18℃, and in the summer, it exceeds 30℃. The relative air humidity doesn’t reach 35%.

Poor, but stable conditions, always better

Temperature fluctuation in the same room during the year can reach up to 20 degrees. Whereas the stability of storage conditions is more important than compliance with ideal standards.

"It's more profitable to keep the pictures in bad, but stable conditions, than in seemingly good, but unstable in terms of temperature and humidity conditions," says painter Arthur Khachatryan, adding that the pictures can be displayed at temperatures below 18 ℃ or above 22 ℃, if the environment remains constant throughout the year, regardless the weather conditions.

Museum artworks can be subjected to moisture and temperature fluctuations due to weather changes, as well as the transfer of those samples (from warehouse to showroom or from country to country) and due to the ventilation system malfunction.

Ventilation is one of the issues facing the National Gallery of Armenia. Not all the halls of the gallery are ventilated. The director notes that the reason is financial and adds that out of 57 halls, only 28 have ventilators.

When Hetq visited the gallery in June, we saw only four air conditioners in 25 halls of the European, Russian and Armenian art galleries, all in the halls of Russian art. The temperature here fluctuated between 21-25 ℃. The devices are not always on. The workers say that they sometimes turn them off, as the air temperature quickly drops. Experts claim that turning the system off and on may cause more damage to collections than lack of ventilation.

There is no ventilation in European and Armenian art halls. Here, the temperature is above 30℃. In the European art halls, there are portable electric fans, which reduce the temperature only for a short distance and for a short time.

Two fans are in Italian, another two - in the Flemish halls, where works of Donatello, Tintoretto, Mancini and others are presented, including five to six-hundred-year-old artworks.

Corrosive rays and dust from open windows

Gallery workers must open the windows to ventilate the exhibition halls and create working conditions. They have no alternative. The artists say there was even a case when somebody fainted because of the heat.

As a result, dust and dirt penetrate the rooms. Ongoing construction takes place outside. The building is surrounded by traffic on three sides. Car emissions can also penetrate the halls.

On the day of our visit, the windows of almost all the European and Armenian halls were open.

Exhausts, however, are not the only external factors that damage the artworks. Accepted advice is to eliminate natural light from museums, as light and ultraviolet radiation are the biggest enemy of fabric, including canvases. Because of their photochemical effect, colors become faded, and tissues become more fragile and easily separable.

Ivan Aivazovsky’s Descent of Noah from Ararat (1889). The window to the side is open.

"Light can multiply the adverse effects of bad weather conditions. Damage caused by light often accelerates from high relative humidity and temperature," says the handbook by the International Council of Museums.

It is preferable to have artificial lighting sufficient to see the collection and work. If, however, natural light is the main source of lighting in a museum or a gallery, it is recommended to disperse and filter it, covering the windows with UV protection films.

Artificial lights are switched on in all the halls of the National Gallery of Armenia, but windows or curtains are also open. The painters add that the frame glasses direct the light to the paintings. Arthur Khachatryan says that nobody puts glasses of such poor quality on their own windows.

A New Ventilation System or a New Building for the Gallery?

The Ministry of Culture responds that "they are going to install solar insulation on the windows". Specialists of Consel LTD, that studied the Gallery months ago, concluded that "none of the windows in the gallery comply with the Armenian construction and energy efficiency standards" and suggested replacing them.

The company also proposed to design a new ventilation and air conditioning system, as the energy efficiency of the former system, which has been operating for about 40 years, is quite low, and the repair and future operation of the old equipment “doesn’t make sense”.

The ministry hasn’t commented on the suggestions of the company. The above-mentioned standards of lighting and temperature are preserved, for example, in the hall of the "100 canvases of social realism" temporary exhibit, whose organizer is not the gallery. Most of the halls here have artificial lighting, and the main temperature is 21-24℃.

Gallery Director Arman Tsaturyan links the poor conditions in the permanent exhibition halls to insufficient financial allocations. "There’s an axiom, the money is never enough. But realizing that this is a state structure, and the state cannot be generous given its other problems, we must be satisfied for the moment," says Tsaturyan.

There is no funding allocated by the state budget 2017 for the heating and ventilation system in the gallery. Tsaturyan adds that they bought several air conditioners with gallery funds, and have applied to the Ministry of Culture for the rest.

"I am sure that we will have better conditions soon," the director says.

Consel LTD made proposals to introduce a new system in accordance with the directive of culture minister Armen Amiryan. However, the ministry considers all measures, including the acquisition of new equipment, as a temporary solution, since the gallery will be housed in a new building. Minister Amiryan made the claim at the beginning of the year, at a meeting with the gallery director.

The culture ministry is short on specifics. What new building are they talking about? When will the gallery be relocated? What will the current building be used for? The ministry hasn’t answered these questions, saying that "the issue is not clarified yet".

If things don’t change, the paintings won’t last long

Artists say that the issue should be resolved this summer. Edgar Amroyan emphasizes the urgency of maintaining the artworks in the European department, taking into account their antiquity and, hence, high value.

The European section has 350-500-year-old artworks. The earliest exhibits date to the 14th century, like an unknown Roman-Greek artist's Virgin Mary from the Annunciation. The painters say that the collection reached Armenia with great difficulties and it was the third museum in the USSR. Even now, they say, it can be considered as one of the bests, but only in terms of the collection.

Edgar is now in Auckland, New Zealand. That town’s gallery collection is about 60% of the Armenia’s Gallery collection, and its classic artworks number not more than twenty. Nevertheless, the air temperature in the Auckland gallery is 21℃, there is moisture-maintaining equipment, and weather conditions are taken into consideration when adjusting conditions inside.

Edgar and Arthur say that these problems are unacceptable. European standards even consider microbes brought by the air conditioner undesirable. They are afraid that thousands of artworks stored in the warehouses are in worse shape.

They are sure that many foreign professionals will agree to assist the gallery for free, if Armenia covers their transportation and accommodation.

"If it goes on like this, the artworks won’t last long," Edgar says.