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Collection Care Network Interview: Samuel Anderson, 2020 AIC Award Winner

By Colleen Grant posted 6 days ago


This is a transcript of an interview with Sam Anderson, winner of the 2020 AIC Allied Professional Award, conducted by the Collection Care Network’s Kelly Krish on August 13, 2020. The video version of the interview can be found here on AIC's YouTube channel. The video and transcript have been edited for length and clarity. 

Samuel Anderson



Mary Coughlin: Hello. My name is Mary Coughlin and I’m Chair of the American Institute for Conservation’s Collection Care Network, abbreviated CCN. CCN was created in recognition of the critical importance of preventive conservation as the most effective means of promoting the long-term preservation of cultural property. This means managing risks to prevent damage to collections, keeping temperature, relative humidity, and light levels at safe ranges, keeping pests out of collections, putting good policies in place to make sure collections are inventoried, secure, and handled properly, and much, much more. In this way, museum collections, historic sites, and archival holdings can be made accessible not just today, but for many years in the future.

The following video is one of three interviews that CCN conducted with the 2020 AIC Award recipients whose work specifically focuses on collection care. If you’re interested in learning more about CCN, please visit and search for Collection Care Network. We strive to support the growing number of conservators and collection care professionals with strong preventive responsibilities and interests, so we always have many projects for you to be involved in. Thanks for watching! 


Kelly Krish: Hello everyone and thank you for joining us. My name is Kelly Krish. I'm the Editor for the Collection Care Network as part of AIC and joining me today is Sam Anderson. I appreciate him taking the time today. Sam Anderson is the recipient of this year's Allied Professional Award, which recognizes the work and contributions from professionals in other fields in the advancement of the conservation profession. Sam is the principal of Samuel Anderson Architects and in that role he has overseen the creation, expansion, and remodeling of countless conservation laboratories in North America, as well as playing a key role in the design of storage spaces, museum expansions, study rooms, and other related projects. So thank you, Sam. I think we'll go ahead and get started with our first question, which was what should conservators know about working with architects and how can we most effectively communicate?


Sam Anderson: Well, those are great questions and I would say there are several ways to answer the question. The first one is that, first of all, I think there are architects who are good to work with and architects who aren't so good to work with. So part of it is, sort of, figuring out what sort of firm are you working with and how responsive will they be? Then the second key factor is who else in your organization is involved and what's their attitude about it? In other words, is there a director or an owner's rep or some other person who has decision-making authority that influences your situation and what you're trying to achieve? And then thirdly, what can you as a conservator or as a collection specialist, what can you do to most be most effective in working with an architect? And I guess I'll start with that.

 I think the most important thing conservators could do at the beginning is to be clear about what you want. And so architects often talk about a program, or a brief. That's basically a document that says, “this is what we're trying to do and what we need to have happen so that we can do it better.” So you sort of outline, what's the role of conservation? If you're a private organization, or if you’re a firm, and if you're part of a museum or a library or something, then how does conservation fit into the overall mission of that institution? So that's like a paragraph. And then after that, it's specific things about what you're trying to achieve, like: you need more space, you need more light, you need better lights, you need better environmental controls, you need more equipment, and you sort of explain those things. And then ideally, you would include a list so that it's clear to whoever's gonna work with you: do you need a scanning electron microscope or not? Do you need a spray room? All the stuff that you may or may not need depending on what your practice is like. 

So to be effective in helping the architect give you what you need, the first thing is to be able to define what it is that you need. That's the most important thing in terms of the beginning. Then in terms of the say, your director or your deputy director, whoever else in your organization is influencing what's going to happen--a lot of that has to do with what kind of relationship have you developed with that person over time? Because I've been engaged in circumstances where the conservators in an institution are respected and appreciated and others where the conservator is seen sort of as a pest or as a complainer. So, that's not something you can change overnight. But, I would encourage everybody who's thinking of doing something like this to try to make sure that the way that you're articulating things over time is constructive and positive and clear, and not discursive or confusing or, you know, not as a problem solver. Because ultimately, whatever you want to accomplish, if the director of your institution is suppressing that, they’re not seeing you or not hearing you, then you won't get what you need. 

So then, finally, the architect. Sadly, some architects are really good at listening and paying attention and caring about how things work and other architects are more concerned about how it looks, or how it comes across in pictures, or “does it fit into the other work that I've done in my past?” So it's a good idea when you're looking for an architect to do some research and make sure you're getting somebody who will pay attention to your functional needs. Then if you're being told, “this is the architect you're going to work with,” because it's part of a bigger project, then do some research and try and figure out, “where is that architect coming from?” Then do whatever you can to build an alliance with that person. Make it clear that you want them to succeed, you want them to be proud of what they've done and part of that is helping them understand what you need and how they can help provide that to you.


Krish: So along those lines, when people are looking to engage different architectural firms, I know you mentioned doing some research, are there any particular questions that you should be asking or checking recommendations or anything? What are some good things you can do to make sure that you are choosing a firm that will be responsive to your needs? 

Anderson: Yeah, I would definitely ask around. One thing I really admire about the conservation community is that you have a really good set of interconnections. You used to have the distribution list and now you have other forms of basically sharing questions and answers. So I would ask around to get suggestions and then, as you're narrowing in on the architects, ask for examples of work that they've done. If they haven't done a conservation lab, have they done other kinds of lab settings, or other kinds of places where good light, good natural light, good control of artificial light, good environmental controls, if they've dealt with those kinds of issues that are key to success in conservation? And then I would also check to make sure, who are they picking as a mechanical engineer? Because the success of a conservation center, basically, is highly dependent on having a mechanical engineer who understands the dynamic nature of the loads, of snorkels turning on and off and fume hoods and those kinds of things, so that they'll design intelligently to that.


Krish: In terms of selecting an architect, if someone doesn't have direct experience with a conservation lab, you should consider other spaces that might have similar needs in terms of function. 

One of the other questions, when you were mentioning how many people can be involved in these projects, how do you manage multiple stakeholders in such a large project, especially when some people might be involved in different phases? What are some ways to manage that?

Anderson: Yeah. That's a very good question. Because there's sort of two groups of people you have to manage. There's the stakeholders and a lot of people who are part of the museum or library or whatever and then there's the design team and the management team. That's the architects, mechanical engineer, plumbing engineer, maybe lighting consultants, security--all those other people that the architect typically brings into the picture. I find that one of the most important things to accept is that when a group of people in a museum or a library are starting to do something like this, oftentimes they may not be that clear about what they want, or some people are very clear and other people aren't. So it's important to actually recognize and allow a certain amount of fumbling and uncertainty and discussion and discovery in the process. Like, if you're too impatient and say, “come on, come on, tell me what do you need, I want to know, I'm gonna write it down and get started.” That's counterproductive. It's really important to allow a certain amount of exploration and discovery as people are deciding what they want and how they're going to do it. But then always to let that happen and then, build towards decisions. So it's important to have the ability to hear what everybody's saying--just feel out what are their key themes and important issues. Then how do you frame questions so that you can get to decisions that are definitive, so you can actually design.


Krish: So, in terms of when an institution should engage an architect, it sounds like it's helpful if there's some internal consensus but you also expect that there might be some modifications as people learn more or hear perspectives and insights from the architect. So, at what point is it best to involve an architect in a planning project? 

Anderson: Well, before the actual design process happens, there's this thing called programming, which is a word from before there were computers. [laughs] So for architects and other building planners, programming is when the client sort of defines what they want, as I described before. So sometimes that can happen independently and sometimes conservators or an institution will hire somebody just to help them do that, or you can do it with the architect. I would recommend waiting and doing it with the architect because if the architect is good, the architect will welcome that as an opportunity to get to know you and understand who you are and how you work and develop a good relationship as they're learning all the specific, more technical stuff. So yeah, I encourage finding an architect towards the very beginning, as you're sort of thinking about something.


Krish: Obviously you've seen a lot of these design and construction projects through. Are there any themes or common issues that have emerged that would help to shape any advice you would give to institutions looking to design storage spaces--anything they should keep an eye out for or pay special attention to?

Anderson: Sure, and, well specifically actually a lot of what I've been talking about is for conservation spaces, but in terms of collection storage, there are a couple of really important things having to do with, basically, what sort of parameters do you want to set. I'm sure everybody watching this is aware of the evolution that's happened in the last, say, 25 years from “everything has to be 70/50” [70F and 50% RH] to “you have to pick temperatures and relative humidities based on what's in your collection and what sort of a range you're going to allow.” And also to be aware of the way sustainability can influence those kinds of choices too. I think it's very important to have conversations within the institution--to be clear, you know, if we have textiles and objects and paintings and works on paper and metals. Are we going to try and put that all in one space or are we going to divide it into five different spaces? And how specifically different do those conditions have to be? Because the more different conditions you have, the more expensive it gets because you have more systems running. So in one sense, it's nice to be able to put stuff together if that's okay, and then only have special spaces for things that really need extreme conditions like metals. 

Another thing that's important to do is to involve your facilities staff or your operations people in those conversations too, because they're the people who are gonna have to make sure the systems run. And one thing I've learned is that it’s possible to design a system that will work perfectly and will be phenomenally responsive. But, it could be much more complicated and sophisticated than a system that’s almost as good would be. I tend to encourage clients to accept something that might be, you know, 97% good instead of 100% perfect because it'll cost a lot less to build, it’ll cost less to run, and it’ll last much longer with fewer headaches. So being clear about what is the staff really going to be able to maintain, what systems that they already have--it's important for everybody at the table, not just the engineer and the operations people, but conservators and registrars to be aware of those too. And again, that's the kind of conversation that doesn't happen once. That would be like a series of meetings.


Krish: You mentioned sustainability, too. I was just curious, are there any particular ways that you've found incorporating sustainability to be successful, or any experiences you'd like to share in that regard?

Anderson: Sure. I would say my two favorite things about sustainability, or strategies: one is if you're designing a building that has many different parts, like it might have offices or conservation labs as well as storage. One really good strategy is put all the storage in the middle of the building and put all the labs and offices around the perimeter. Because that way, you're getting light into all the spaces that need light and you typically don't need or want light in storage. That way also you're buffering and insulating the storage spaces so that they're not exposed to the extreme outdoor swings in temperature and relative humidity. So that way, you allow the system to run much more efficiently because you're not fighting the cold or fighting the heat.

So then the other really good idea for collection storage is when you're designing a mechanical system, basically the mechanical system is a fan and a bunch of heating and cooling coils that takes the air and makes it either warmer or colder, and also gets it to the right relative humidity. And you always have to bring in some amount of outside air, because otherwise people inside would asphyxiate. So in the old days, they used to design systems so that a fair amount of outside air came in and that return air coming back from the collection would sort of commingle with the outside air and all go back through the system together. And when you design a system like that, if it's really hot and humid outside, we end up spending a huge amount of energy and carbon to dehumidify all the air including the air that's coming back. 

So we always recommend actually splitting it up so you have one air handler that’s only dealing with outside air and another air handler that's doing all the work of the circulating. And that way, like at night when there are very few people around, you don't really need much outside air. You bring in very little and that way you're not expending huge amounts of energy when you don't need to.


Krish: One question I had too since you've been a part of so many projects that have been so successful, are there any common characteristics that kind of stand out so that when you're starting a project, you get the sense of, like, “this is good, we've got really good communication” or “this team is really involving everyone at the institution.” What are some characteristics that tend to make for a more successful project? 

Anderson: Yeah, I would say that point you just made is the single most important one in that, some directors and managers are sort of controlling. They want decisions that happen smoothly and quickly. And if they don't allow the full range of all the stakeholders, all the people who should be involved to be part of the process, that's a bad sign. But if everybody's voice is appreciated and respected and they're allowed to participate, that's a really good sign. So if I'm getting bad signs, I’ll try to have conversations to pry open their thinking so that they can be sure to listen and interact with all the people that should be represented.


Krish: Well, I think that might be a good place to to wrap up. So I want to thank you again, Sam, for joining us today.

Anderson:  Well it's been my pleasure Kelly. It’s been really nice talking to you.