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News Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 5: Pests and Preventive Conservation

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While those of us in the conservation department are working from home, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. Like so many around the country, we are finally taking the time to clean out our closets, sort through our attics, and look through our family albums. While we all turn to our family treasures for comfort during these trying times, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections.

Each week a different student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation will address ways to care for the collections in your cupboards. Last week’s post focused on personal library collections. This week’s post looks at pest management and was written by Marie Desrochers, a second-year Fellow in Preventive Conservation.

Pests and Preventive Conservation

Since the beginning of time, humans have lived alongside tiny friends with six, eight, and even multiple hundred legs. While we are all staying in our homes, we may have noticed their presence more than usual. Insects, spiders, centipedes, and mice are all examples of small critters that are essential to the delicate balance of life in our greater biosphere. That said, it is typically preferable to NOT find these friends in our homes. Often referred to as “pests” within the context of interior spaces, these industrious neighbors can easily destroy objects we treasure. In art conservation, we employ a system known as “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM) to manage the risk that pests can pose for collections. IPM utilizes careful observation and monitoring to avoid, block, and detect pests. It is a preventive method of control that is cost effective, minimizes the use of toxic chemicals, and can be applied anywhere from major museums to your own home.

Pests can do significant damage, as shown on this print from the Winterthur collection. (Image courtesy of Joan Irving.)

Avoid

In order to avoid their infiltration into the home, it is critical to make your home inhospitable to pests. While these intruders ultimately need food, water, and shelter to survive, the presence of any one component may attract them. Housekeeping is the first line of defense, preventing pest food sources and shelter in the form of dust and debris. Excessively damp areas, perhaps leaking pipes or dark, hidden spaces within cabinet structures may provide enough water to sustain pests. Certain house plants may harbor pests. Plant material can provide a food source for adult insects whose larvae will feed on collection materials. Regular, thorough housekeeping, especially in areas where treasures are stored, is key.

Rodents can also cause damage to family treasures, as demonstrated by this book that was chewed by mice. (Image courtesy of Melissa Tedone.)

​Block

The main line of defense for blocking pests from getting to treasured objects is the building itself. Tiny cracks in the walls, foundation, between floorboards, and in areas surrounding windows and doors allow pests to enter. Cracks and openings that are out of sight, for example, in dark closet corners or behind appliances, are also of concern. Sealing cracks with waterproof construction materials such as silicone caulk or wall compound and also filling bigger openings with balled-up wire mesh will prevent larger rodents from coming into the house. A dry, well-sealed building structure is a great start for preventing pest infiltration.

Detect

This is where the monitoring part comes into play, and it requires human inhabitants to keep their eyes and ears open for any pest activity. In the museum world, we collect pests in traps, identify the species of the pest, and keep track of it in a database. Making at least a mental note about what pests you are finding in your home can give you clues about how and why they are getting inside. Pest cycles are seasonal and may take years to evolve, but paying attention to pest habits over time can help you problem-solve for the bigger picture.

Silverfish (illustrated) will commonly graze on books and works on paper, including platinum prints (left) and paper labels (right). (Images courtesy of Debra Hess Norris, Melissa King, and Joelle Wickens.)

​While most pests are not likely to eat treasured textiles and works of art, key pests to be aware of include silverfish and booklice that will readily graze on paper, especially paper coated with glues and other starchy media. Other pests, including webbing clothes moths and carpet beetles, will feed on proteinaceous materials such as those found in leather, wool, and silk. You may remember people in the past depending on mothballs in trunks and closets as a chemical treatment to prevent textiles from being eaten by moths. With proper storage, blocking pests by bagging or boxing the treasures, and managing the environment where they are stored can make such smelly chemical measures unnecessary.

By following the steps outlined above, hopefully you can prevent pests from following a “stay-at-home” order in your house and protect your family treasures in the process.

We hope you've enjoyed this entry in our new series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. This series will continue throughout the summer and cover a variety of items and materials. The next post will continue our look at preventive conservation by focusing on emergency preparedness. If you have any comments on the series thus far, including materials you’d like to see covered in future posts, please email us at art-conservation@udel.edu.

You are in our hearts and minds as collectively we focus on saving lives. We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. When we emerge from this global crisis we must and will rely on art and culture, preserved for today and for future generations, to foster joy, well-being and hope. We encourage you to visit our web site for regular updates on our department of art conservation and news coverage of our treasured students and alumni at home and abroad.

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​As our series continues, we shift focus to preventive conservation and integrated pest management of our interior spaces and collections.

​As our series continues, we shift focus to preventive conservation and integrated pest management of our interior spaces and collections.

4/30/2020
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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489
  • art-conservation@udel.edu