In the wake of the pandemic, cultural heritage organizations began researching its effect on collections, our ability to care for them, and the potential for surface contact transmission. The REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) research project launched in May 2020 to test the survival period of active SARS-CoV-2 on common surfaces found in library, archive, and museum collections. To date, eight laboratory tests have shown that the virus remains viable on surfaces from a few hours to a few days and could contribute to the transmission of COVID-19.

Cultural heritage organizations must also allow users (and staff!) into their spaces to provide access to collections, and it is now widely accepted that COVID-19 is predominantly spread through airborne transmission. But how do we reduce the risk of transmission in our buildings?

Limiting building capacity, social distancing, frequent handwashing, and wearing masks have proven effective in curbing the disease’s spread. Some organizations may reduce the risk of transmission further through building systems, specifically through effective ventilation.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) is on it! ASHRAE convened an Epidemic Task Force to develop “core recommendations for reducing airborne infectious aerosol exposure.” They produced four webinars during 2020 on the topic and made them available for free after registering with your email address:

In particular, we recommend Managing Your HVAC Systems to Help Mitigate the Spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Buildings webinar from June 29, 2020. This technical webinar presents excellent reasoning behind involving all stakeholders in decision-making, documenting changes, and understanding the possible trade-offs when making changes to building systems. For example, by altering the building’s relative humidity, the virus may become more or less viable.

We also recommend Analysis of Airflow Patterns and Flow Path of Airborne Contaminants webinar from July 21, 2020. Another technical webinar, this presentation explains the components of ventilation (containment, dilution, and removal), airflow and flow paths, and what makes for “good” ventilation. Be sure to watch the flow path simulations starting at about a half-hour into the presentation! The visuals convey the importance of the “path of least resistance” and the unexpected distribution of contaminants in an uncalibrated space.

It’s important to note that ASHRAE “cannot make any claim or guarantee that compliance with their standards and guidance will provide health, comfort, or occupant acceptability, but shall strive for those objectives, consistent with ASHRAE policy.” These webinars are for informative purposes only, though they may inspire you to work with your building systems experts to explore ways to optimize airflow.

By: Becky Geller, COSTEP MA member and Preservation Specialist, NEDCC