Museum Preventative Conservation 101: Know Your Enemies—The Agents of Deterioration

Our intern, Ashley Nicole (Nikki) Lorenzen came to Fairbanks for two months to help us catalog our archives. She has done an outstanding job. In her time here, she has become interested in conservation. This blog post explains the challenges museums face in conserving their collections, and how they must handle them.

The purpose of a modern museums is to collect, preserve, interpret, and display items of cultural, artistic, or scientific significance for the education of the public both today and in the future. Museums wouldn’t be museums without their collections of objects and archives. But it can be a challenge to make sure those objects are around for generations to come; after all entropy is inevitable. However, there are steps museum professionals can take to decrease the risk to their collections and hopefully prevent or delay the need to call in a conservator to repair an object. Knowing the risks is the first step to preventing damage. Below are ten of the most common agents of deterioration, in no particular order, a brief description of hazards they pose and some ways to avoid the damage they can cause.

1.      Physical Forces
The three biggest concerns with physical forces are impact, shock, and vibration. Probably most damage from physical forces is caused during shipping. Objects need to be professionally and securely packed for transport and inspected both prior to packing at the original location and after it is unpacked at its final destination. Establishing good object handling procedures should help decrease the risk of some impact related problems. Additionally proper storage will further decrease risks for all three physical factors. Shelving units should be sturdy and not so high that museum workers cannot reach objects easily and safely. Units may also need to have small lips at the edge to prevent vibrations for earthquakes, heavy trucks passing by, etc, from “walking” objects off the edge of the shelf.

2.      Thieves/Vandals
Unfortunately not all museum attendees have the best intentions. And even more unfortunately most cases of theft involve someone working for the museum and should be safeguarding its collection. Security screening prior to hiring personnel may reduce the likelihood of hiring potential thieves. Vandalism such as graffiti or gum is not just a common nuisance but can cause irreparable damage to museum collections. Installing security systems in museums can help reduce the likelihood of theft or vandalism through the use of proximity alarms, weight triggers, etc, and the mere presence of security personnel may deter casual vandals and thieves. Although it is unlikely that any museum can be theft-proof to an especially determined thief, security measures should be in place to decrease the risk. Insurance should also be considered for especially valuable or vulnerable pieces.

3.      Dissociation
Dissociation results in the loss of objects, object-related data, or the ability to associate an object with its data. While the other agents of deterioration focus more on physical damage or harm, dissociation affects the legal, cultural, or intellectual status of an object. Dissociation can be brought about through sloppy records keeping or sporadic or catastrophic events resulting in extensive data or object loss (think natural disasters). Object labels or tags might be lost due to pest activity, fading due to light pollution, abrasion, etc. Illegibility or error in creating labels also leads to dissociation.
Without their associated data objects lose their context and meaning which can effect an entire collection. Proper records keeping and careful attention to detail should be maintained to attempt to lessen the occurrence of dissociation.

4.      Fire
Unfortunately, no building or museum is completely safe from the danger of a fire. Fires can result in partial or complete loss of a museum’s collection (or building) and may even result in the loss of life. Therefore fire prevention and control needs to be among the top priorities of any museum. Knowing and minimizing the sources of fire ignition will help decrease the risk of a fire and having the proper response system in place will help maintain the safety of personnel and collections in the event a fire does occur. Although the cost initially of setting up a fire prevention system may seem high the benefits far outweigh the cost. Installing the right kind of fire suppression system, using the right materials for cases and exhibit treatments, and practicing fire response protocols are all ways to minimize fire risks.

5.      Water
Water is another major concern for collections. Mentioned above fire suppression systems frequently use water but that water also has the potential to damage collections so knowing when and where to install water-based fire suppression is key. Water is also likely to find its way into the building during a storm or flood so building maintenance is extremely important. Inspections should be conducted routinely to determine if water is getting into the building. Collections should always be kept off the floor and if possible out of basements to minimize damage due to flooding. Water may also be the result of spills, construction accidents, leaking from air conditioning units, etc.

6.      Pollutants
“Pollutant” is a broader term that can be applied to airborne pollutants, pollutants caused by contact with another material, and intrinsic pollutants. Airborne pollutants include (but are not limited to) ozone, sulpher-based gases, hydrogen, and nitrogen dioxide. The effects of such pollutants can be discoloration, corrosion, disfiguration, etc. Pollutants can also be transferred by contact. Skin contact is a common way for this to happen and the oils on skin can damage many objects so it is generally best to use nitrile or cotton gloves when handling objects, though paper objects are generally not handled with gloves because they can tear the pages. But contact doesn’t just mean human contact. Not all materials get along with one another and should not be stored or displayed together. Paper clips can rust and damage archival papers. Wood and plastics off-gas harmful chemicals. Silver can destroy fabric. Knowing the complete composition of an artifact can tell you the best and most effect method of storage. Intrinsic pollutants are those that are produced due to the nature of the object itself and regardless of treatment will eventually cause damage to the object. However steps can be made to minimize and slow this damage if the components of the object are known. Ink or ‘original’ adhesive tapes on papers are examples of intrinsic pollutants. For archival works it may be possible to scan the papers to create a digital record in the even that deterioration is not able to be stopped.

7.      Light (Ultraviolet/Infrared)
Not all light is visible to the human eye but all light is harmful to collection objects and archives. Light damage can be seen in fading, yellowing, and cracking for example. Rotating objects off of display and into proper storage is an easy way to minimize damage caused by light while still allowing for public education. Tinted windows can also help reduce light damage. Frequent light metering should also be conducted to establish the light pollution levels caused by windows and skylights so that exhibits can be set up accordingly and the most sensitive objects can be housed elsewhere or have appropriate cases in p
lace to guard their exposure.

8.      Incorrect Relative Humidity
Temperature and Humidity are linked and can be used in conjunction to offset problems. Some humidity is generally good for most collection objects so “relative humidity” is not a problem but there is a right and wrong, hence “incorrect relative humidity.” If it is too humid the environment may breed mold, for example, which can be extremely harmful to collections. Incorrect relative humidity can also cause rusting, cracking, crizzling, etc. Weather is a major source of fluctuating humidity and inspections should be done semi-annually to make sure the building is secure. Installing regulatory systems is the best way to monitor and control fluctuations in humidity. If your museum cannot afford the more expensive systems humidity can be controlled to an extent using temperature changes. Generally the higher the temperature the lower the humidity in a controlled environment.

9.      Incorrect Relative Temperature
Like humidity, temperature cannot be avoided but incorrect temperature levels will cause damage to your museum’s collection. Fluctuations in temperature can cause rapid changes in some organic materials that will lead to them cracking or bowing. High or low temperatures can cause materials to become brittle or shrink. Windows and electrical equipment are two possible sources of increased temperature. Thermostats are an easy way to maintain correct temperature levels. For sensitive materials and objects it may be a good idea to place temperature and humidity monitors inside object cases for a better detection method.

Remember not all objects should be stored at the same relative temperature or humidity. Some objects may need cold storage to best preserve them whereas others need to be kept in warmer conditions. Knowing the components of collection objects will tell you the best methods of storage.

10.  Pests
Pests are a major concern for most museums. And having pests only leads to more pests. Frass (insect feces) will attract other insects and pests. Because of the organic nature of many collection objects they are at high risk for insect and other pest activity. Moths and beetles love chowing down on fibers and can ruin textiles in short order. Creating and implementing an Integrated Pest Management policy will help educate personnel combat pests. Sticky traps are good for both insects and rodent populations and should be checked regularly.

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