It can sometimes be a little hard to comprehend that some of our most treasured museum artefacts have been around for thousands or even millions of years. These items were used by people from multiple generations ago and have survived for us to admire in the present day. It makes you curious as to which of our everyday items that we take for granted may be around for thousands of years after we are gone.
Artefacts offer us a window to the past and their preservation is vital if we want to learn about past civilisations and traditions. It’s always sad to hear about such artefacts being destroyed due to natural causes – or worse, human error or tampering. Luckily, museums have an array of technology that they can use to prevent damage from natural causes.
The world’s largest museum and research complex, The Smithsonian, has identified the following ‘agents of deterioration’:
- Neglect: The loss of the artefact or any information associated with it due to poor record keeping, not following process or leaving the artefact in storage without proper care.
- Water: leaks, floods, and damp wreak havoc on artefacts.
- Physical force: from the obvious force of impact to vibrations and pressure, physical force can damage any museum artefact or artwork. This is why museums display their pieces in cases or behind designated barriers. Of course, this isn’t always fool-proof. For example, did you know Michelangelo’s David has a delicate flaw in its ankles? A slight shift in angle, a strong vibration from a train or footfall, or a natural disaster like an earthquake would send David tumbling.
- Theft and vandalism: The mishandling or purposeful damage to artefacts and art can leave them irreparable.
- Light : light damage can cause fading or cracking in some artefacts.
- Pests: a particular problem in taxidermy specimens or natural materials, pests won’t pause to consider the historical value of one textile from another before chowing down!
- Fire: rather self-explanatory, fire can cause the utter destruction of an artefact, through burning or the resulting smoke damage.
- Pollutants: gases and dirt can lead to the swift decay of certain artefacts. Chemicals in cleaning can also erode away materials. Even the oils on your hands can be harsh enough to pollute some delicate artefacts.
The main cause of damage to artefacts was identified as a combination of temperature and humidity. These two factors combined can speed up the growth of mould, the rate of warping and decay. Without adequate protection, the cost of artefact lost can be immeasurable, from a loss of monetary value to a loss of any physical record of that item.
The renowned Oxford Dodo, for example is recognised as the most complete single dodo specimen in the world. And yet, all that has survived is the head and a foot thanks to an infestation noted in the specimen around 1755; feather mites are highlighted as the main culprit for devouring the taxidermy dodo’s torso, wings, and feathers. Preservation Equipment advises that a high humidity can encourage fungal growth and pests in natural materials; could better temperature and humidity controls have saved more of the last dodo specimen?
Heat can also have a significant impact on our artefacts. The Telegraph reported how, when the glass roof of the Natural History Museum was cleaned of around 150 years’ worth of dirt, it was quickly discovered that the gathered dirt and the decision to remove the solar reflective film from the glass had had unintended side effects. Temperatures in the museum have soared to 40°C and the humidity tumbled, and the artefacts and specimens are already suffering irreversible damage, the article reports. The skin of specimens is cracking and drying, fading as they are sun-bleached, and whale skeletons are also degrading as a result. The museum is not only looking into replacing the solar reflective film, but also at installing a new HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system to try and save the artefacts.
This isn’t just a UK specific issue – Denmark is currently facing the loss of several ancient historical artefacts due to a damp problem in the museum storage areas. CPH Post commented that the museums are using old buildings such as barns or lofts to store the artefacts, which means they aren’t being protected by any level of temperature control. More than 70,000 items are at risk of being destroyed as a result of 118 buildings used for storage being marked as riddled with mould.
Luckily, through close monitoring and care, artefacts and artwork can be kept safely on display and in storage. The optimum temperature is between 16°C and 20°C — though temperatures as low as 10°C probably won’t cause harm, the risk of condensation grows for anything below 10°C. In terms of humidity, the advised relative humidity is between 40% and 70%, to avoid drying out items or encouraging pest or fungal infestations. It has also been noted that rapid fluctuation in humidity can be problematic.