The Chippewa Valley Museum houses more than 22,000 historical objects, 17,000 original photographs, and 4,200 archival documents. As you know, the museum’s core mission is to preserve these resources, to share them with the community through exhibits and programs, and to make them accessible to researchers. Preservation comes first. Preservation relies largely on two things: professionally trained curators who know how best to handle all varieties of historical materials, and control over the environment in which the objects reside.
Professional environmental standards for preserving historical artifacts are more stringent than for most other indoor spaces people encounter in their day-to-day lives. It can never be too hot or too cold, too humid or too dry. Condensation and mold must always be kept at bay. At CVM, the temperature can’t fluctuate by more than two degrees or the humidity by more than three percent in 24 hours. Transitions between seasons are done gradually to let artifacts adjust. At the same time, preservation needs are balanced against what is economical and what is best for the comfort of staff, researchers, and visitors.
Like many large buildings, the Chippewa Valley Museum uses a complicated heating/ventilating/air conditioning (HVAC) system to maintain its environment. The HVAC system contains an air-handling unit (AHU), boilers, air conditioning, fans, humidification, circulating pumps, and 16 variable air volume (VAV) systems that manage airflow to separate zones within the building. All of this is controlled by a direct digital control (DDC) board, or what the staff call “the brain.”
Over the previous six years, the old HVAC system had faltered in a number of different ways. The company that manufactured it had been bought out years earlier. The model installed at CVM was no longer produced, and maintenance workers were no longer trained how to fix it. Nonetheless, with help from skilled repair people at Trane, the museum was always able to find used parts to install, which worked to keep the system running. Staff knew the system would need to be replaced eventually, but everyone who worked on it believed it would be fine for at least another year.
However, in early November 2015, the brain began to fail. The DDC was unable to download all of the environmental data it needed to operate the system correctly. An attempted repair, again with a used piece of equipment, was not successful. The loss of DDC control left the HVAC system component parts (and ultimately the museum environment) under the manual control of facilities manager Dondi Hayden.
The risk of immediate damage was low but not zero. For example, since the DDC wasn’t getting updates about whether the fans were running or not, the humidifier couldn’t recognize whether the air-handling unit had stopped. Hayden had to shut the humidifier off manually every night on the off chance the fans failed too. If the fans had stopped with the humidifier running, the duct system would quickly have filled with water condensation. Since several warning systems were also down, the museum would have had a flood on its hands.
Estimates to replace the HVAC system came to more than $24,000. To do it right, including hiring a professional consultant to ensure the new system was designed and installed to meet museum preservation standards, the total cost would be closer to $30,000. (The museum’s annual maintenance budget is only about $13,000.)
At this point, an anonymous individual stepped in to cover the full costs of replacing the HVAC system. The importance of this donation cannot be overstated. After all the challenges the museum had overcome in fiscal year 2015, the HVAC system failure portended fiscal doom right at the start of FY16. Instead, CVM was able to hire Bartingale Mechanical to install a new HVAC system without worry or delay. Moreover, the anonymous donation allowed the museum to focus its year-end giving campaign on bolstering the core operating budget. Thanks to you, and to Charter Bank’s generous 50% match, FY16 is looking much brighter. (A full list of donors can be found on page 10.)
This article was republished from Currents, newsletter of the Chippewa Valley Museum, February 2016.
For more information on the Museum, visit http://www.cvmuseum.com/