Risks to your collections

From Our Toolkit

The main risks to any heritage collection can be structured around the ten Agents of Deterioration. These are as follows:

Temperature and relative humidity

Storing or diplaying your collections in conditions where the temperature and humidity levels are not right can cause mould, warping and encourage pest infestations. The guidance below will help you to indentify the right conditions for your collection and how to implement them.

  • Museums Galleries Scotland provides an easy to understand introduction to Temperature and humidity in museums which explains the link between the two elements, how to monitor them and recommended levels for different types of collection items.
  • Museum Galleries Scotland has a further Monitoring temperature and humidity in museums advice guide which provides greater detail in the types of equipment you can use to monitor your environment.
  • Museums and Galleries Commission’s Relative humidity and temperature pattern book provides further advice on how to interpret your temperature and humidity records.
  • The Canadian Conservation Institute’s Agents of Deterioration resource provides in-depth information on Temperature and Humidity.

Light

Uncontrolled light and UV radiation sources can quickly cause irreversible damage to your collections through fading and bleaching which in turn can make materials brittle.

  • Museums Galleries Scotland have an introduction to Monitoring light and UV radiation which covers when and how to measure light and UV radiation and what measures can be taken to control display and storage spaces.
  • Museums Galleries Scotland also has further advice on Conservation and lighting which provides information on how to light collection items in line with conservation principles including appropriate light levels for key items.
  • The Canadian Conservation Institute’s Agents of Deterioration resource provides in-depth information on Light

Pollutants

Airborne pollutants come from a range of sources. When considering the display and storage of your collections it is important to be aware of the different types and how you can limit the exposure of your items to pollutants that could cause them damage.

  • Museums Galleries Scotland provides an easy to understand introduction to Identifying and reducing air pollutants. This should be read in conjunction with the information below.
  • Museums Galleries Scotland also offer guidance on the pollutants which can be introduced to your collections through your choice of storage and display materials.  This includes recommended materials for the different types of collection items and well as describing the impact of wrong choices of materials.
  • The Canadian Conservation Institute’s Agents of Deterioration provides in-depth information about pollutants.

Infestation

Historic buildings and collections often provide the perfect homes for insect pests looking for food, shelter, warmth and water. Not all insects are a threat to your collection but it is vital that you can quickly identify the ones that are. These are commonly types of beetle, moths and silverfish. The most popular collection materials which attract pests are wood, textiles, fur and feathers. Infestations can create irreversible damage quickly and often unnoticed so it is important that your collections are displayed and stored to prevent this and regular spot checks are made on vulnerable items.

  • Birmingham Museum’s What’s eating your collection provides detailed information on the types of pest to look out for, what action to take if you find them and provides a range of resources to help you establish a programme of Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
  • English Heritage has produced a quick reference poster for the most common pests which is ideal for putting up in any collection store area.
  • English Heritage also provides further detailed fact sheets on individual pests
  • The British Library have produced a guide on How to manage pests in paper-based collections.
  • The Canadian Conservation Institute’s Agents of Deterioration resource on Pests provides in-depth information on pests including rodents.

Water

Water ingress can happen from natural distasters such as a flood, from mechanical failure such as burst pipes, or something simply accidental as an unexpected spillage. It can damage collection items in a range of ways including causing varnished wooden items to ‘blanch’; staining and distortion in paper items, staining on textiles, and corrison and rust on metal items.

  • The Canadian Conservation Institute’s Agents of Deterioration resource has a thorough section on Water which includes how to assess the risk, how to act to prevent it and also how to deal with it if discovered.
  • The Museum of London provides a handy Salvage pocket guide for collection items damaged by water.
  • The Canadian Conservation Institute’s Agents of Deterioration provides in-depth information about Water.

An associated with water ingress, and damp conditions in general, is mould growth. Mould is a fungal growth which can be harmful to humans as well as your collections. When treating a mould outbreak it is key to consider the human hazards first.

Your plans, actions and equipment relating to the salvage of collection items in the event of a water related emergency should be recorded in your organisation’s emergency plan.

Fire

The worst impact on heritage collections from fire is from the smoke damage rather than the flames. As a result it is vital that any display and storage areas are covered by a fire / smoke detection system supported by fire extinguishers with personnel trained to use them. If you hold particularly high value items you may wish to consider storing them in a fire-proof safe.

  • The Canadian Conservation Institute’s Agents of Deterioration provides in-depth information about the risks from Fire.

Physical force

Collections are subject to physical force in a number of ways. These include forces exerted through impact; shock; vibration; pressure; and abrasion. Damage from these is caused through rotation, deformation, stress, breakage and pressure. Good collections care can mitigate against these forces through the use of good display and storage techniques and equipment.

Theft or vandals

Theft and vandalism is defined as the deliberate damage to items that is either premeditated or a opportunistic crime. By displaying our collections in a secure way either in glass cases or out of reach we can mitigate against this. As well as by ensuring that our storage areas are secure and only accessible to authorised people or under supervision.

  • The Canadian Conservation Institute’s Agents of Deterioration provides in-depth information about the risks from Theft and vandalism.

Custodial neglect

The neglect of collections or individual collection items is not limited to the potential loss of the item but also extends to a lack of ongoing care of an item and even the loss of the information that is associated with the artefact. Failure to care for a item either through poor preservation or lack of required conservation can cause it to deteriorate. The separation of key information such as names, dates, location and other details which provide the provenance for the item can be hugely detrimental to the care of a collection or item.

  • The Canadian Conservation Institute’s Agents of Deterioration provides in-depth information about the risks from Disassociation.

Further advice

The National Archive’s Managing Mixed Collections guidance focuses on how to care for both archive and artefact collections in section 5.

Assessing the risk to your collection

If you are unsure which risks your collection may be subject to you can undertake an assessment. Share Museums East has a easy guide on How to assess and manage risk in collections care.

If you suspect you collection is at risk from particular hazard you may find the Museum of London’s Hazards in Collections e-tool useful which covers 13 specific hazards including arsenic, asbestos, explosives, lead and mercury.

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