The Conservation of Natural History Materials

With tongue fixed firmly in cheek it has been a long standing joke in the Booth Museum that from a conservator’s perspective the ideal Natural History Museum would be situated in deep space, shielded in some way from the ravages of meteorites and other space debris.

Here, without an atmosphere, the collections would in theory be truly protected, A from light, B from dust, C from insect attack, D fluctuations in humidity & temperature, E from wear & tear.

The Museum at the end of the universe, Natural History section. ?

Situated in deep space there would be no light which as we all know causes fading by means of ultra-violet radiation. At first shielding took the form of greenhouse paint being applied to the skylights at the Booth. Later it was realised that artificial light was also a source of harmful radiation and UV filters were applied to all lights and to the case fronts. Sadly any fading is irreversible, but at least we are able to prevent further fading.

Museum dust is worse than normal dust which according to Wikipedia is as follows:-

 Dust consists of particles in the atmosphere arise from various sources such as soil dust lifted up by wind, volcanic eruptions, and pollution. Dust in homes, offices, and other human environments contains small amounts of plant pollen, human and animal hairs, textile fibers paper fibers, minerals from outdoor soil, and many other materials which may be found in the local environment.

Dirty, dusty museum objects are less attractive aesthetically and educationally. In sufficient quantities the dust can also provide a suitable nurturing environment for the development of insect pests.  The removal of this dust is inevitably harmful to the specimens. In deep space’s vacuum there would be no atmosphere and movement of atmosphere to allow the dust to circulate and settle of objects. Museum pests would of course be unable to survive in the vacuum of deep space.

Having been deprived by the Health & Safety Executive of the beneficial effects of Arsenic, Dichlorvos, Formaldehyde & Naphthalene, we attempt to reproduce the space effect, by placing vulnerable museum objects in a vacuum preferably in a freezer, or in an anaerobic container. In the Booth the most harmful pests are invertebrates misc. carnivorous beetles, moth, mites. Recently the collection received the unwanted harmful attention of a family of mice.

All museum objects are at risk from fluctuations in humidity and temperature; the two are usually linked and can be easily monitored by readings in a thermo hygrograph which plots heat against temperature.

In storage and display the movement on a molecular level caused by expansion & contraction and the change in humidity have to be minimised. In the geology and palaeontology collections increased humidity can result in harmful chemical reactions. The Booth’s fabric consisting as it does of a large amount of absorbent wood achieves a degree of natural humidity control, not however enough.

The final category wear and tear is caused exclusively by people who of course could not survive in space, neither staff nor visitors. Any movement whether for storage, cleaning or for educational purposes has an effect on specimens and must rank as the foremost source of wear and tear and damage to museum specimens of every kind.

People in the museums however are unavoidable and so, not having the deep space option we at the Booth have to make do as best as we can. It is as well to remember that even the most benign conservation treatment will impart a degree of damage. Some objects especially those made of leather, feathers and vegetable matter are particularly vulnerable to this form of harm.

Away from space but nearly as unlikely would be a form of quarantine for any specimens that leave and are returned to the museum. Ideally items that are used for loans or outreach work should be housed completely separately, to be able to avoid the introduction of insect pests to the main collections. As a general rule these items should be regarded as separate collections and as being expendable.

In the Booth the most commonly asked health and safety issue raised is the Arsenic question. Is it harmful to museum staff? Arsenic is the main reason that Booth’s collections are still with us however it has a fearsome reputation, to an extent based on Victorian hyperbole & melodrama. It has been superseded by Borax powder and to a degree by pyrethrum based insecticides making all modern specimens completely safe, but not very safe from insect attack!  Prolonged exposure to arsenic may be harmful but occasional exposure to the small quantities encountered from museum specimens will not.

Any conservation work should only be carried out by qualified staff. Any observations suggesting work required should be passed on to them, e.g. damage or evidence of insect attack. Well meaning repair work is to be discouraged firmly but politely.

Jeremy Adams, retired Assistant Keeper at the Booth Museum

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