11 Preventive Measures for Protecting Collections from Pest Infestations

Artwork Archive | July 21, 2021 (Updated January 31, 2023)

Image credit: Matze Bob from Unsplash.

Laura Elliff Cruz has 17 years of collections management and care experience and she currently works as the Collections Manager at the School for Advanced Research (SAR), Indian Arts Research Center (IARC) in Santa Fe, NM. She also teaches courses through Northern States Conservation Center and previously worked at the Denver Art Museum.

Don't let pests destroy your prized art collection. Follow these integrated pest management tips to properly protect your artworks and valuables. 

A webbing clothes moth larvae smaller than your pinky nail can surprisingly devour a collection object.

Clutter in your storage area can create the perfect home for other pests like mice.

Not monitoring your collection for pests in storage or on display can be detrimental over time.

So identifying risks under an established integrated pest management (IPM) program is vital. Please follow some important strategies below to help protect collections from the risk of pests.


1. Reiterate the no food and living plant policy in storage and the exhibit

Striving for a no food, drink or living plant policy in storage and exhibition areas is the most basic approach. Establish no offices in storage spaces to prevent the vulnerability of eating at desks or bringing personal coats in storage. Wash hands before entering storage after eating and assure there is a routine garbage schedule both inside and outside of storage. Additionally, please communicate with staff during events for the no food and living plant policy in these spaces! 

Exceptions to food in storage are for cultural appropriate care. Reach out to the originating community for questions on this subject matter.


2. Identify risks: building structure and collection materials

Is your building well sealed at the doors and windows? Evaluate building gaps that can be filled for pests to enter. Weather stripping is a great option. Collaborate with the facilities team at your museum to regularly identify, improve, and monitor the building structure of a museum.

Next, assess what types of materials make up the collection. Which materials are the most vulnerable? For example, webbing clothes moth larvae love the proteinaceous materials of fur, feathers, leather, wool. Silverfish love paper. Also, consider those empty wooden crates that can attract pests too if they are in a non-climate dirty storage space. 

You can track these materials in an online art collection management system. If your collection is spread across multiple locations, you'll even be able to see if particular pests are more likely within a particular area.


3. Identify the pests that are the biggest threats

When you find insects or vermin, do you know what it is? Having a magnifying glass and some pest flash cards for staff training is essential for proper identification and placement of traps. Museumpests.net is an excellent resource too. 


4. Cleaning is one of the best medicines 

Dust accumulation is abrasive over time and it ignites the fuel for pests wanting to munch on those precious collection objects. A HEPA vacuum with several micro attachments, dry dust mops, puffers and hake dust brushes of different sizes can make a world of difference in keeping things tidy.

Establish a regular cleaning schedule for both storage and objects on display at your museum. For storage, vacuum compactors aisles and surrounding floors, clean the top of compactors, wipe down well used surfaces regularly and clean carts. For objects on display, assure there is a consistent schedule to clean platforms, pedestals or to deep clean individual objects on permanent display that may not be under glazing or in cases. Always seek professional advice from a trained conservator prior to cleaning any object to prevent damage.


5. Minimize dust in storage

Options to lessen object dust in storage include keeping doors closed, sewing dust covers for shelving (a cotton sheet with a magnetic strip works great), sewing soft Tyvek covers for individual larger objects, putting objects in closed cabinets with doors, storing objects in boxes with lids, or simply using tissue to cover items.

HVAC maintenance is key too. Get those filters changed out quarterly! 


6. Decluttering: a simple preventive approach

Museums are always short on space whether that is in your storage area or on display. Eliminating clutter is not only for human safety but you do not want to provide that perfect environment for pests to move in either. Clutter can also be archival supplies, so assure that is weeded out too. If the clutter at your museum are objects with nowhere to store them, then evaluate your collecting plan and mission statement so you are not accepting items at a fast pace if you cannot care for them!


7. Establish guidelines for other collection activities

Assure that new acquisitions arriving at the museum are evaluated for pests and ideally should go through a regular inspection and freezing process (if it is safe to do so).  Are you allowed to freeze incoming loans pending the lender requirements? Communicate this early and know your parameters. 


8. Assess your environment

Do you have a stable climate for temperature and relative humidity? Pests like to thrive in environments with high temperature and humidity levels. Have regular HVAC maintenance performed quarterly and other equipment on hand if your climate is not stable like fans, humidifiers or dehumidifiers.


9. Monitoring: traps and documentation

Pest activity can easily be monitored by sticky, baited, or pheromone traps. Place the traps strategically throughout the storage and exhibition spaces. Number the traps and create a map of the locations. Monitor those dark hidden storage areas frequently with the vulnerable materials as well!

Document what you find in the sticky traps on a consistent schedule (weekly, monthly, or quarterly). Take photos of the traps and log your pest name into a database to understand the trends and analytics of what you are finding. A great IPM tool for recording data is through Conserv.


10. Implementation, training, and communication: IPM plan and monitoring schedule

How will you implement a program without an established policy and procedure? Create or update an IPM plan and then get staff onboarded to participate in the training (refreshers are great later too). You can upload this important document to your art database, like Artwork Archive, so that everyone has access.

Now you have the plan, but who is doing the work? This often falls to collections management, conservation, or registration professionals. Other larger museums may have a dedicated position to IPM such as a preventive conservation manager. Figure out who is cleaning what spaces and a schedule of how often, as this may be a shared responsibility in exhibition spaces by the facilities team. Communication and staff knowledge for consistent procedures is crucial. Without this, an integrated pest management program can crumble apart. 


11. Tools and equipment preparation for an infestation

Do you have a freezer or anoxia tent, a bagging system for isolation, HEPA vacuum, and other small examination tools? Monitoring is a simple fundamental approach for preventive measures discussed above, but always be prepared for a pest infestation by having the supplies on hand for a swift response. Overall, strategies and procedures for mitigating an infestation is another larger conversation!


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