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Building a Better Exhibit Case

The Office of Exhibits Central and the Museum Conservation Institute develop affordable and sustainable conservation-grade casework.

OEC collaborated with MCI to design and test exhibit cases that meet the stringent requirements of object conservators to keep Smithsonian artifacts safe from environmental damage and material degradation.

Previously, Smithsonian museums had to contract this kind of specialized work out to one of a handful of manufacturers. The cost of these cases was almost always prohibitive, especially for temporary exhibits. The new high-level conservation-grade casework can be produced at a reasonable cost in-house at OEC.

Mindful of the Smithsonian’s commitment to sustainability, the system encourages recycling. Existing exhibition cases can be retrofitted with conservation-grade object chambers. The cases also address both security concerns and fire safety.

The process and construction technique are the result of years of effort by staff members at both OEC and MCI. Conservator Jia-Sun Tsang tested a wide range of products to determine the best conservation-grade materials to construct the case. OEC provided the engineering, equipment, and fabrication expertise.


microchamber, or sealed object chamber

Illustration of object chamber, desk, and vitrine. The sealed object chamber, called a “microchamber,” isolates a museum object from harmful gases and other materials and maintains a stable humidity.


Microchamber fitted into exhiition case

Microchamber fitted into exhibition case.


Helmet in conservation grade case

This microchamber with deck was retrofitted to an ex¬isting wooden case. A set of metal coupons (back right corner)—used to monitor conditions inside the case—showed no corrosion after nine months. Photo: Don Hurlbert, NMNH.


Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations

Wooden display cases retrofitted with conservation-grade microchambers for the exhibition “Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 2010–2011. Photo: Don Hurlbert, NMNH.

For more information about conservation-grade cases, click below to download: “Conservation Meets Sustainability: Recycling Wooden Exhibition Cases.” WAAC Newsletter, Volume 35, Number 2, May 2013

Download Conservation Meets Sustainability