Collection Dangers

Conservators have come up with various lists of 9 or 10 “Agents of Deterioration.” In our C2C collections care and disaster preparedness workshops, we separate these agents out in different ways. Fire and water are 2 of these designated “agents of deterioration” that result from disasters and are the focus of disaster preparedness workshops. In contrast, our collections care workshops highlight pervasive dangers of which the general public, and even museum staff members, may not be aware. In some cases there are fairly simple steps and/ or products to help protect collections from these dangers. Our job is to help you learn about what you can do to improve preservation conditions.

We identify 6 factors to worry about on a regular basis. As a mnemonic device, 3 are environmental and 3 are Ps.

Light                                                                                               People

Temperature                                                                                   Pests

Relative Humidity                                                                 Pollutants

Earlier posts have discussed several of these factors, especially lightRH, and pests but we need to say more about the most destructive and pervasive threat to our collections—people. We ourselves, our staff, and our visitors—well intentioned and well behaved as most are—present a persistent danger to our collections. This people category includes handling errors such as dropping, scraping, and touching materials like metals (especially vulnerable to hand-oil damage) without gloves. Sometimes without proper knowledge, vigilance, and caution, even good housekeeping practices like vacuuming can lead to damage. Many pieces of furniture in historic houses, for instance, have been marred by cleaners and cleaning equipment.

photo from
"Wait! Come back to sign our guest book so we can count you in our visitation stats!"

Unfortunately, the “People” category also includes deliberate human damage such as vandalism and theft. Remember, those most likely to steal from the collection are the researchers, staff, and volunteers who often feel deep connections to the pieces and have ready access. In his book, Priceless, Founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, Robert Wittman asserts that 90% of museum thefts are inside jobs.

Another human danger to preservation is what the Canadian Conservation Institute terms “dissociation.” A lack of thoroughness in tracking artifacts leads to this problem. A piece of an artifact can be stored separately without a record of its connection to the whole. At other times the artifact cannot be found or its accession number is no longer legible. If it cannot be matched with its provenance, much of its value to the museum disappears.

Access is always important for collections held in the public trust. Collections managers, however, must work to protect artifacts from the dangers that people pose.


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on April 24, 2012, in collections care, collections management, Connecting to Collections, disaster preparedness, storage, workshops and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I always feel really good about how we manage our collection until I get to “disassociation”.

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