Crystal Clear: The problem with Goppion display cases
As museum professionals, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we protect and display our artifacts, but what about examining the display cases themselves? Goppion is a Milan-based glass company that advertises itself as being at the forefront of designing specialized, protective cases for displaying museum artifacts. According to their website:
“Goppion synthesizes functionality and elegance, science and technology. Clean, unfussy lines conceal advanced engineering, reaching optimal performance conservation, security and presentation.”
Screenshot from goppion.com. Courtesy of Avi Margolis.
Goppion has provided custom made display cases to museums around the world, including the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia(UBC).
In June of 2021, Business in Vancouver reported that UBC was filing a lawsuit against the company in the BC Supreme court. According to the notice of civil claim filed on May 25, 2021, Goppion’s display cases were forming crystals along the edges of the glass. The crystals obscure the view of the artifacts within, but more importantly are a massive preservation concern.
When the cases were built in 2009, UBC tested the materials and compounds to be used by Goppion and approved them. However, nearly a decade later, the museum found crystals forming inside the cases. The crystals were chemically analyzed and found to be made of tetramethyl-piperidinol. They contained chlorine and sodium, both of which are damaging to the artifacts being stored within the cases. The adhesive Terostat, which was used to secure the glass and metal in the cases, seems to be the source of the compounds that caused the crystallization.
Images of crystallization in cases from the Rijksmuseum. Courtesy of van Iperen et al.
An article published in Studies in Conservation in September of 2020 found similar compounds in the Rijksmuseum’s Goppion display cases.
Standard preventative conservation emission tests do not account for the compound responsible and it therefore went unnoticed when the museum examined the materials. The MOA likely had the same issue. The article emphasizes that current standard tests are insufficient, especially as airtight showcases mean that the emission thresholds capable of causing damage are increasingly small.
The question remains: how much responsibility for this oversight should rest with the museums and how much with the company? Goppion does not publicly acknowledge the crystallization issues with their cases. In fact, their website still quotes a positive review from the MOA’s Exhibition Designer, Skooker Broome, despite the ongoing lawsuit.
However, the Studies of Conservation article was published in 2020 while the deposits were discovered shortly after the installation of display cases back in 2013. According to the UBC’s lawsuit claim, Goppion was made aware of the issue and allegedly produced a white paper report in October 2015, but did not disclose the risks or provide a copy of the report to UBC or the MOA.
An ironic screenshot from Goppion's website noting that "There's so much at stake" when displaying priceless artifacts. Courtesy of Avi Margolis.
The negligence of continuing to make and promote museum display cases using a harmful chemical compound clearly rests with Goppion. If the company was made aware of the tetramethyl-piperidinol found by the Rijksmuseum in 2013 and did not inform every company they had made cases for of the problem, they are responsible for years of damage to priceless artifacts around the world.
Beyond the specific issue of chemical off-gassing in airtight display cases, this story highlights the ways in which the museum field’s secrecy can cause harm. Many institutions failed to widely publicize issues with their cases, likely to avoid accusations that they had endangered the artifacts which they claim to protect. However, this allowed the continued proliferation of Goppion cases and widespread danger to museum artifacts. It is important to consider what techniques we can use to spread awareness of problems in the field. While a whisper network can help with harm reduction, it is insufficient as a response to a large company like Goppion. We need to ensure that strong standards and accountability are maintained in these circumstances, which might require publicly owning up to our own oversights.