Heating and cooling issue could cause big problems for Peoria Riverfront Museum

By WEEK Producer

January 16, 2014 Updated Jan 16, 2014 at 10:58 PM CDT

PEORIA, Ill. -- It is designed to be educational and fun for central Illinois residents but now taxpayers may get an expensive education.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum has been open just over a year and already officials have had a number of problems.

Initial attendance projections fell way short of the mark. That lead to financial issues for the public/private endeavor.

On top of that, the museum's first president and CEO left just seven months after opening. The new CEO, on the job just six weeks now, came with the hopes of a fresh start.

However, another issue has recently come to light.

Before the museum even opened, Peoria County officials say they knew there was a problem with the building's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.

That in turn lead to a flooring issue in the main exhibit hall.

If you've been to the museum it's a problem you may not even think of or notice. The HVAC system is not able to control temperature and humidity the way that is needed for a museum.

Humidity control is critical for a building that houses very expensive and unique artifacts.

"We have, in fact, put in work-around solutions that have been able to keep those temperature and humidity controls where they need to be so that we are properly taking care of the artwork and other exhibits," said Peoria County Administrator Lori Curtis-Luther.

Condensation from a unit caused a floor in the main exhibit hall to buckle. That has since been replaced under the warranty. The museum's new CEO says he was aware of the problems when he was hired and says it comes with the territory.

"I've operated large buildings for some time. I always expect issues. It's just part of having a big building," said Sam Gappmayer.

Peoria County officials own the building. They have hired a company to look into the issue and help come up with a solution.

Officials say they are just not sure what happens next. Could there be a possible lawsuit or could taxpayers end up footing a bill?

"We have some initial estimates, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to speak to those right now," said Curtis-Luther.

"The process we're going through involves, as you might imagine, assessment of responsibility and that's an on-going process," added Gappmayer.

Meanwhile, WEEK/WHOI has learned the museum's accreditation could be at stake.

One criteria for a museum to maintain its accreditation is collection care. That means it has to keep the humidity and temperature at a constant level.

A spokesman for the American Alliance Museums said a canvas is meant to expand and contract with temperature changes but there is a bigger problem that can cause the artwork to mold.

"One of the key factors in that, as opposed to temperature which you might think is important, is humidity. The most important thing is to avoid fluctuations," said Dewey Blanton.

If there is a known problem with maintaining those levels, the accreditation commission will likely investigate.

A director with an Illinois State museum said every accredited museum is required to have a hydro-thermometer that measures the changes in humidity and climate.

There are also sensors in the HVAC system that monitors the humidity levels; and sounds an alarm when it changes.

He said paintings act like sponges and suck up moisture -- once it starts the damage is done.

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