Flag during conservation

Flag during conservation

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Mold in collections is the environmental "canary in a coal mine"

A common issue found in collection storage is the presence of mold. Mold can unfortunately be found on collections, but also at times on the layers that are to protect collections. Museum professionals strive to keep their environment stable, their storage areas clean with good housekeeping practices, and surround their collections with archival materials. Yet mold out-breaks still can occur. So why does this happen, particularly if the protective layers are archival, and the environment is being monitored?

ABOVE: Mold growth on a military jacket. The jacket
was displayed on a mannequin form under glass bonnet.

It turns out that mold is a tricky organism, and it wants to live. And given a chance, live it will. And of course, museums have in their collections the perfect materials for those tenacious spores to live and set-up house.

"Microscopic molds are both very beautiful and absorbingly interesting. The rapid growth of their spores, the way they live on each other, the manner in which the different forms come and go, is so amazing and varied that I believe a man could spend his life and not exhaust the forms or problems. 
— David Fairchild
The World Was My Garden (1938, 1941), 55.

All organic materials (and even some inorganic materials) will support mold, with natural fibers being the most susceptible. Mold is a microorganism that produces enzymes that convert the cellulose in fibers to soluble sugar that is metabolized as food. Proteins are generally less susceptible, but keratinophilic fungi will feed on, and damage, these fibers as well. Mold is found first on soiled areas, but also on materials that are starched, sized, have brightens, or have in the past been treated or exposed to some substance that is still present. And sadly, all mold growth creates a permanent, irreversible stain. (See below).

ABOVE: Before treatment
ABOVE: After treatment

The photos on the left and right show mold on paper. While the mold has been reduced substantially, the permanent stains it has left behind are now part of the object.

RH = Relative humidity is a measure of the capacity of air to hold water. This amount varies as temperatures increase or decrease

Mold is omni-present and if mold is not actively growing, its spores are always in the air waiting for the ideal conditions so that they may grow. Ideal conditions for mold growth are relative humidity (above 65% with a temperature of 75 F or above (25 C). Humidity is by far the most important factor in facilitating mold growth, and if the you have an 80% RH you can be certain that mold is actively growing and it is spreading. 

ABOVE: this printout shows a 7 day record of temperature (in red) and the RH (in blue).

However, even at moderate conditions, an outbreak can start in a surprisingly short time. Ideal conditions for mold growth are slightly different for each mold species but mainly within this "sweet spot" of above 65% RH/75 degrees F. But remember that mold is tricky, in fact, mold growth has been noted as low as 50% RH. How can this be? Well, because mold is everywhere and it is a survivor, and the typical museum can not create/afford a "clean room" like those used in hospitals or high tech industry. Therefore, museums rely on creating an environment that is not conducive to growth. Key to this is keeping the relative humidity down. However, it must be noted that if a collection or an artifact has been affected by active mold in the past, there is an increased chance of a breakout at a lower relative humidity. Think of the later mold moving into an already furnished apartment, everything they need is already there, they just need to move in where their "roots" had successfully taken hold in the past.

ABOVE: Sneaky mold. Here are three of the same types of artifacts, same material
(wood), same time period, same storage area. Yet, the artifact in the middle is almost
entirely untouched by mold while its sandwiching neighbors are nearly covered.   

Determining an actual set point for ones storage environment can be difficult as that there are many factors that are in play. One might even read conflicting recommendations. One of the issues is the amount of ventilation that an area receives. As that storage rooms are broken up by all sorts of cabinetry and shelving units, both open and closed, micro-climates can easily be created. This can especially be the case in historic structures with older HVAC systems of any kind.

The other issue, is how dirty artifacts are in the collection. The artifacts, especially in historic collections, have had an earlier life that includes the acculmative soiling and embedding dirt. All of which, mold spores love! So, even with good and regular housekeeping mold can still appear. 

As stated earlier, mold is tricky and sneaky. Perhaps you have done all of the right things and there is still a persistent out break. Well, there could be inherent issues of moisture that are beyond the specific room. A roof leak nearby, a damp basement, a leaky pipe, etc. Do not over look these seemingly small or large problems that are outside of the immediate vicinity of a mold outbreak. I have frequently come to an institution because of a mold out-break, only to find that it is the canary telling them that something else is going on.

Historical structures come with historical foundations. This
particular historical property experienced water in their basement
causing the RH to rise, causing…you guessed it, a mold outbreak in
the rooms and floors above. Did we mention that mold is sneaky?

Therefore, take any presence of mold seriously, keep your relative humidity down as low as possible, learn how the air moves in your storage space, be diligent in housekeeping, and know the "food" mold likes to eat.

Food sources for mold:
  • soiling and dirt on the surface of the artifact.
  • starch or other finishes that have not been washed out. Pre-washing muslin and even the twill tape has been found to be critical to remove these finishes.

ABOVE (top and bottom photos) Muslin wrapped, rolled textiles with mold on the surface of the wrapping.

LEFT: Image of detection of mold on unwashed muslin. UV light shows the mold is quite pervasive. So while the museum has done a great job of housekeeping and their storage is thoughtfully organized, the muslin coverings of their carpet/rug collection was at risk for a pervasive mold outbreak simply because the muslin was not washed prior to being used.

RIGHT: Another image of UV light to detect mold growth. This mold is growing on the twill tape straps. The twill tape was not washed prior to being used to tie the ends of the items in rolled storage.

Several years ago, the National Park Service produced a conserve-o-gram that focused on mold. Read it here. And the Smithsonian talks about mold here, which is also good reading to know more about the fungus among us. Lastly, Alaska State Museum's (ASM) experience with mold, or what they affectionately term, "white stuff", has been well documented and researched. ASM has experience and know-how about mold and how sneaky it can be - read about their battle with mold and the vigilance with which they maintain their collection here.

Do you have a mold success story? Do you have a mold challenge that seems unmeetable? The options for treatment and the factors to consider when determining how best to treat objects, textiles, or paper are numerous and often case specific. If in doubt about how a moldy artifact should be treated, call a conservator. We are always here to help!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Conservation of Victorian Hair Art

Hair wreaths are a symbol of the Victorian Era. While many have some unique features, they mainly follow a standard look. They are most often created in a horseshoe shape, mounted with the open side up to "hold good luck". A woman of this era would often make a hair wreath as a demonstration of her handiwork. The hair included in the wreath was often from family members, however if you were short on hair it could of course be ordered from a catalog. Also found in catalogs were various types of flowers, leaves, and methods of creating designs with the hair.

ABOVE: An example of a hair wreath done in a style that is quite
thin and wiry. It does however feature the typical horseshoe.
ABOVE: Another traditional hair wreath, but with an interesting feature. At the center sits a bird with
colored feathers, in its beak a piece of twisted hair. The hair in this wreath is densely placed, and
while many flowers are in similar colors, a few different shades can be found.  

I have seen very few examples like the hair work that came to the studio recently (see below). This type of work is in the French style, and has been referred to as "French Palette work" or "hair feather design" perhaps because it does bear resemblance to still-life works created with bird feathers.

ABOVE: Here is the French-style Victorian hair art after treatment.

What makes this French-based art work so different than the typical hair work from the United States in that it has absolutely no wires. Instead it is composed mainly of full, large, locks as the focal point, with smaller pieces cut and glued into a design, with a feature of leaves or flower petals, which are pieces of hair laid flat, glued to a paper surface, then cut into the shape desired. The entire work is then glued to glass.

ABOVE: Up-close of the French hair work when it arrived in our studio. You can see the loose pieces as
well as the loss from the cut leaves and flower petals.  Also obvious is the glue that has yellowed over time.

The swab shows the dirt that has built up. Also obvious is the faded initials "E. O."
which were obscured by a loose tendril of hair. 

After the paper board was removed from the back of the frame,
pages of a book, written in French were found.

Hair is still a way to express yourself artistically. Not only are some brave souls trying to figure out the way Victorian hair art was created, there are plenty of modern artists who use hair as their creative medium, like the example below.  

Amazingly these leaves are made of hair by artist Jenine Shereos.
See more of this and other amazing work at www.jenineshereos.com

To see some other ways hair is currently used in art, visit this fabulous blog: http://www.artisaway.com/blog/hair-as-a-fascinating-theme-in-art-fashion-and-design/ it shows several examples of some absolutely amazing modern hair art.

If you would like to know a little more about Victorian Hair Art, visit these sites:


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Tape. Good intentions with bad results, and how to store artifacts that really should have been conserved.

In keeping with the theme of storage, today's blog deals with the difficulty of storing objects that have an adhesive of some type integrated with the material of the artifact or incorporated in the mounting of the object.

Too often an artifact is delivered to SAC studio with tape or glue applied to it in some way. Torn paper is often "repaired" with Scotch-style tape or masking tape, which over time becomes a hard, discolored, brittle mess, leaving behind a stain where it was applied. Prints, lithographs and watercolors sometimes arrive glued to poster boards or mats with rubber cement or some other glue. Samplers and framed textiles often receive the same treatment. And the most common "repair" work we see is the mending of  a torn flag, rug and wall textile with Duct Tape, which is sadly regarded by many as the cure-all of any rip or tear.

This silver Duct tape was applied to the reverse side of a silk rug. Luckily the Duct tape
 was only on the rug for a relatively short time. The removal could have been much worse.

We actually have a file of photographs labeled "good intentions". Here we keep a visual record of the repairs done with the best intentions, that sadly had negative repercussions as the artifact (along with the glue or tape) aged. Of course the applier of the adhesive had good intentions, and at the time, the fix must have seemed like the perfect thing. If only they knew that in the future, the "fix" would need its own fix.

We also have a file of articles and resources that discuss at length the removal of tape and glue. Immersion, poultice, rolling, scraping, scoring, suction table, they all have merits and drawbacks and that actually is not what we will cover here. Instead the focus is on storage and what to do with an artifact that has been taped or glued but cannot be treated for whatever reason.

Let's face it, not every artifact can go to the conservator's studio for treatment, yet it may not be best suited to go into indefinite storage because it contains dangerous or unwanted materials.

Q: So what is the best method to store an item that has conservation needs?

A: The quick answer is store it in a cold, dark environment, with low humidity.
       And remember that prevention is better than a cure. Check on the piece often (like every 6 months).

Adhesives are complex things. For instance, unless you have tested a particular tape, you probably cannot easily identify the plastic used to make the carrier, or the chemical composition of the adhesive applied to it.

Here an aged piece of duct tape has separated into several pieces, the silver
back of the carrier, the "fabric" of the  carrier, and the sticky adhesive.

In Franca Manganelli's 1982 article, Careless Use of Adhesive Tape she speaks frankly, "The damage caused is particularly serious as it cannot be undone. The yellowish brown stains left by adhesive tape can never be removed, and if they penetrate from the back of the paper (where the adhesive is generally applied) to the front side, they permanently spoil…in addition the paper becomes fragile and consequently more likely to tear." She goes on to state, "The obvious conclusion is that appropriate information campaigns need to be organized so that these regrettable accidents will no longer occur in the future."

Here is a compound tape repair. The masking tape has clearly dried and left behind a stain,
the duct tape in this treatment was still strongly adhered to the paper and was quite sticky.

So, if you must store an artifact with tape still applied to it, keep in mind the guidelines above and be sure that it is boxed properly with non-acidic materials. These items need to be conserved, but until that time, do your best to minimize any further damage and remember that the items cannot remain in storage indefinitely.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Museum Storage Success

by Gwen Spicer
Occasionally I have the opportunity to see a museum make real improvements in the storage of their collections. Recently, I had such an opportunity. I was asked to visit the Museum of Firefighting in Hudson, NY to examine an artifact. As part of the visit, I was invited to see their storage, and gladly accepted, as I am always interested in museum storage. So off we went.

I had in fact performed a CAP survey for this museum back in the summer of 2008, with the purpose of  thoroughly examining the collection storage as well as prioritizing items for conservation. Back then, the museum's storage was actually scattered in several locations, with a real need for consolidation of artifacts, and expansion of the actual space allowed for storage. Some rooms were better organized than others.

Therefore, when I saw all that was done since my last visit I was very impressed with the effort of the staff over the years. Collections were now completely off the floor, shelving was covered with soft Tyvek dust covers, and collections were grouped by type.

This might seem like a simple effort, but often there are conflicting pulls on staff time, perhaps even staff changes, where such projects do not get accomplished. Even this one did not happen overnight, but has taken several years. It should be noted that the Museum did also receive an NEH Preservation Assistance Grant in order to purchase supplies.

I thought that I would show some before and after photographs of their great work.

Above, items in the collection are placed on open shelves.  Below, everything is covered with Tyvek dust covers.

Before photo (left) shows many items in cardboard boxes, most of which were stacked on the floor.   The After photo (right) shows the switch to acid-free boxes and the ever-important dust-covers.

The gift shop storage (seen on the Left) was moved from artifact storage, allowing for painting storage racks (Right).

Awkward shelving was replaced with more standard metal shelving.

Perhaps my favorite part of the Museum of Firefighting's storage is their wonderful use of magnets!
A low-tech solution to hold the dust covers was done with large metal washers fastened with plastic rivets and 1" disc magnets. All sides of the metal shelves were covered with a layer of soft Tyvek. At the back and sides of the units, the Tyvek was secured around the perimeter with the washers and rivets. At the front of the units, the Tyvek was positioned as two overlapping parts. The sides were secured with the washer/rivets, but the top edge and center was secured with 1" ceramic disc magnets.

The metal washers were held in place with pushed-in, ribbed shank plastic rivets.

The pushed-in, ribbed shank, plastic rivet (illustrated above) can be purchased from McMaster-Carr.
 On the Left, the soft Tyvek is closed, covering the front of the shelf units. On the Right, 
removing the ceramic magnets to view the artifacts behind.

Corroplast sheeting was secured with plastic tie wraps.

For their storage needs, the Museum selected ceramic or ferrite magnets over a stronger rare earth option. In this situation, it was found that the rare earths were just too strong for the job. And in fact, they were correct, had they selected the stronger rare earth magnet, the sharp attraction or shock from "jumping" onto the metal shelving would, over time, demagnetize the magnet. For this specific type of use, the less expensive ceramic magnet with the low to medium pull force is the best choice.

At SAC we discuss storage often with our clients simply because storage is incredibly important.  Over the next few posts we will be talking about some storage specifics and some storage generalizations to assist everyone involved in artifact storage to find the best solutions and avoid making costly mistakes.  Stay tuned!

I cannot overstate the success of this Museum's storage overhaul.  It was just wonderful to see that the artifacts in this museum are cared for in such a dedicated and thoughtful way.  Great work to all who worked on this project!

Do you have a storage success story?  Share it with us!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Historic Amazon cultural treasures and the need to protect them

by Gwen Spicer

The Amazon region is full of surprises and variety. The majority of us know about the rich diversity of plants and animals, and perhaps even the region's role in our understanding the origin of species in evolution. Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace made many scientific discoveries in the Amazon that rivaled and ultimately complemented Charles Darwin's great insight. In the last few decades researchers have realized how early this region was settled and the landscape altered.  Recent work on the "black soil of the Indians" has demonstrated how Native Americans manipulated their environment to make the soil more fertile. Large regions in the Amazon Basin were totally changed well before the arrival of the Europeans. Deforestation, which began and has continued since the arrival of the Europeans has not been an equally beneficial landscape alteration.

The black soil manipulated from the orange colored sands.

I recently had the amazing experience to visit one of these sites, that is believed to have been inhabited as long ago as 11,000 years. In the early 1990s, Dr. Anna Roosevelt of the Field Museum and the University of Illinois excavated area caves and carbon dated the materials.  Her work overturned the idea that the jungle was not a virgin forest that was simply inhospitable and therefore, uninhabitable by humans.

In the middle of an island of natural savanna along the north bank of the Amazon River near Monte Alegre, in Pará state Brazil are a number of striking sandstone formations. After staying for weeks in the vast and nearly level expanse of the lower Amazon Basin, coming upon such formations is quite a surprise. This unusual region with tall rock outcroppings is a place that offers long vistas of the Amazon channel. This area is the southern beginning of the Guiana plateau that continues north to the top of South America. Early on, the Portuguese established a town close by, Monte Alegre, 50 miles downriver from Santarém. This region was once ocean floor, part of an expanse of water that linked the Pacific with the Atlantic.

Cactus are actually a common sight in this region.

These same rock formations were used by these early cultures. Among the surviving evidence of their presence are the amazing paintings, among the earliest cave paintings in the Americas. They are called the Caverna da Pedra Pintada, or Cave of the Painted Rock.

The great Amazon River to the south.
Yes, that is the Amazon River in the background.

This is all intensely interesting, but what became clearly apparent, just like the Museu da Amazonia (See earlier post), this site too is in severely threatened. It is true that the roads are not good--a four-wheel drive vehicle is needed to reach the site--but for the Amazon, I have seen worse. There is no sign to direct you to the region or the park, though our guide, Roberto do Deus, said that one is in the works, as is a plan to make the Monte-Alegre State Park a more viable entity. Though well-worn paths lead you to the various locations, we were extremely fortunate to have a guide with 20 years experience at the site, what Roberto calls his '"University of the Painted Rocks". Some of the popular caves can be reached on an easy walking path; others required much more stamina. In such a hot and humid environment, consuming lots of water was essential.

Presently there is no security on site, so there is nothing but the good will of the visitors to prevent vandals from defacing these treasured and ancient paintings, truly a national cultural treasure.

The path leading up to one of the caves with the paintings

Monte Alegre is a small town and is not growing as fast as a major city like the Brazilian city of Manaus, but it is none the less in the grip of change. It is now a small community, where people still sit out on the sidewalk and talk across the street to their neighbors and the plaza is filled with people at night amid small stands selling home made foods. Walking the streets, walls around houses were low and one had less of a sense of insecurity one feels in the larger cities. Kite flying is a popular past-time for children and adults alike. An improved electrical service is coming soon to replace the local generator, and the Federal University over Western Pará based in Santarem is opening up a satellite university. These are all great improvement for the community, but locals fear that with these will bring changes and additional people unfamiliar with local customs and respect for the archeological sites.

An increase in tourism will follow, and the need for it to be regulated will become necessary, simply because more protection is needed of these historically important sites.

Nothing is present to prevent touching or marking these pre-historic cave paintings. How to do this would require research preferably without creating additional issues. A extreme solutions was performed at Grotte Chauvet in Southern France. For this site, becoming a Federally owned park is probably the first step where more funding and resources could be available. Such was the case for another Brazilian cave painting site that then became a World Heritage Site. Whether such level of protection is possible here, is yet to be known.

Our guide, Roberto do Deus and others seek to find this balance, allowing more visitors to learn, but also for the community to have respect of these unique and special sites. We only hope that they are successful!

A proposal for the Monte Alegre Park facility is in the works that would have integrated areas, where visitors can meet, complete with rest areas with benches. A building would have exhibition space, work areas for education workers, and bathrooms. Read more about it on Roberto's blog www.montealegrehoje.blogspot.com.br

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Challenge of Protecting the Culture, Artifacts and Natural Resources of the Amazon

Museums are charged with the protection of culture, including artifacts and natural resources. Such is the case of the Museu da Amazonia (MUSA). A giant land reserve, 10,000 square kilometers, in the center of the Amazon region. The reserve was established in 1963 and called Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke, in honor of the botanist, Adolpho Ducke (1876-1959) who saw the need to preserve the forest. It is part of the National Institute of Amazonian Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, INPA), whose mission is to further scientific research of the Amazon region. INPA is a vital institution, where new discoveries continue to be made at a rapid rate. Then the Ducke Reserve evolved into a public botanical garden, with trails and pathways created for the public to see the diverse rain forest ecosystem, now combined with exhibits that make the MUSA a 'living museum'.

With the enthusiastic leadership of Director Dr. Ennio Candotti, the MUSA has developed quickly into a place where urban dwellers can experience, and learn to appreciate, the ecological diversity of the rain forest that surrounds the exploding urban area of the city of Manaus. Exhibit spaces dedicated to indigenous survival skills are interspersed with orchid and butterfly areas. Recently a collection of hand-woven fish traps has been on display. Continuously running videos show how they were made on site by Amerindians who came to visit.  Dr. Candotti explains that the MUSA actively recruits young people from the urban neighborhoods bordering the museum to be guides, part of the mission to make the local population better appreciate their special environment. From the top of the newly constructed observation tower (more on that below), the visitor can see urban sprawl to the south, and relatively undisturbed rain forest to the north. The visitor standing on the tower is confronted with the immediacy of development in the Amazon. The MUSA offers a place in which a vision of responsible growth in this region might be incubated.

Termite ants across the path, neatly staying within their trail, slowly building a tunnel over their path.

In the meantime, the nearby city of Manaus has rapidly grown, in a chaotic and uncontrolled way. It is among the fastest growing cities in Brazil. The outline of the protected land at the Ducke Reserve can now easily be seen as in the images below where the city stops at its edge.

The two photos above show the growth of the City of Manaus over the last 19 years.

Another ~20year comparison. The shift from small waterside
community to hugely populated waterside resort town,
complete with hotels, restaurants and boardwalks.

The unprotected borders of the Ducke Reserve could easily suffer human occupation, a small bit here and there. This issue can be found around the world, from Ukrain's Folklore museum, Pyrohiv, to the most remarkable list of the 46 properties which the World Heritage Committee includes on the "List of World Heritage in Danger" found on the UNESCO website. My colleague, Linda Norris has written extensively in her blogs about these various threats and the solutions the museums are attempting to find (see Uncataloged Museum and Museum, Politics and Power.)

Part of the Museu da Amazonia's solution is education, enabling the public to understand fully the importance of the forest, not just seeing it simply as the "wild jungle" or "selva" in Portuguese. By hiring the local neighborhood guides, it is hoped that the people bordering the reserve will take "ownership" of the reserve, embrace it as part of their neighborhood, and will perhaps want to protect it as a means of national pride. From their photos on their Facebook page, family programs are also a large part of their activities.

Newly built observation tower with viewing platforms.

A major project to build a special observation tower was just completed. As mentioned above, the tower extends above the forest canopy allowing for unencumbered views in each direction. The guided tour goes through the forest canopy, with platforms for long viewing at various levels. This tower will bring the undeniable changes and challenges facing the reserve immediately to the observer.

The Reserve is not on the list of world heritage sites in danger.  But without the dedication and advocacy it currently enjoys, that could quickly change.

What do you think?  Can this site survive?  Do you know of similar sites that could be in danger?