Protect Your Antiquities and Art Collection from Mold & Pests: A Fumigation Primer

Elysian Koglmeier | September 29, 2022

Image courtesy of Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Expert advice on providing safe and professional care for your textiles, books and other organic artifacts impacted by microbial activity, smoke and other odors.

Did you know that your museum, archive or personal collection is constantly battling detrimental elements like pests, mold and other microbial activity? There are preventative measures that you can take against pests – some of which we outline in this article. And you can safely store your artworks like an expert with these tips.

But even the smallest of errors can lead to damaged artwork and artifacts. Whether it's humid climates that produce mold, wildfires that create smoke, or persistent pests that find their way into your'll need a way to clean and safeguard your cherished objects.

Fumigation is a way to protect your collection from pests and other harmful factors like mold, smoke, odors, etc. 

What is fumigation?

Fumigation is the process of using gas in an enclosed area to get rid of pests. Pest control professionals seal the area with a tent-like covering, plastic, and other airtight materials. Museums use fumigation services to get rid of pests for a few reasons:

  • Fumigation targets a lot of problematic pests in large areas.

  • Fumigation is safe for artworks, books, wooden objects, furniture, and more.

  • The process is safe for even the most delicate of collections. There is no risk of damage.  

We asked Museum Textiles Services (MTS), a New England based independent conservation studio, what common questions they hear from private collections, cultural heritage institutions, and government agencies. 


What causes microbial activity?

The most common cause for contamination of textiles and other objects with mold, mildew and fungus is prolonged exposure to high relative humidity and temperatures that cause airborne spores to proliferate. Low light and stagnant air both accelerate this process.

Deposits of food, perspiration, sebum, or other pollutants also encourage microbial activity and associated odors.

Tip: If you spot any sign of microbial growth, log it in your Artwork Archive account. Use the Maintenance tool to note the activity and schedule a chat with your conservator.


What can I do to prevent microbial activity? 

Storing valuables in attics, basements, garages, and other infrequently visited areas of your home or museum is an invitation for mold, mildew and fungal growth. High humidity conditions, in combination with warm or hot temperatures, can cause the spores found all around us to bloom in as few as three days.

However, fairly mild temperatures and relative humidity levels that persist for several weeks can also harbor ongoing microbial activity on organic materials. Keep your valuables clean and store them where air circulation is present, and relative humidity and temperatures do not exceed 70 percent and 70 degrees for more than 72 hours.

Tip: Track the conditions of your various display spaces and storage units with Artwork Archive’s Location tracking


What do you use to fumigate textiles?

MTS uses activated sodium chlorite to create a disinfecting vapor of chlorine dioxide, to which we temporarily expose artifacts such as textiles and clothing. Through the process of oxidation, the vapor breaks the molecular bonds of microbes that grow on organic materials and cause deposits, odor and discoloration. 

This poses no harm to either organic or inorganic artworks, including textiles. Items fumigated this way remain more resistant to re-contamination if re-exposed moist and warm conditions.

Tip: Upload your conservator's treatment plan or other types of documentation they provide into your Artwork Archive account.


What do I need to do to prep for fumigation?

All textiles must be dry to the touch at the time of delivery. Conservators will not accept wet items. 

All items must also be free of pest activity, such as clothes moths. Conservators will not fumigate textiles infested with insects. 

Image courtesy of Chris Lawton on Unsplash.


What should I expect after fumigation?

Fumigating items is just the first step in stopping a microbial outbreak. Once they are deactivated, the soot particles, fungal spores, fuzzy mold, and the dirt they feed on should be removed from the affected surfaces to reduce the opportunity for staining and rot. 

Everyday clothing can often be dry cleaned, but historic garments and textiles, clothing accessories, works of art, and other vintage valuables should be cleaned by a professional conservator.

Following fumigation, conservators like Museum Textile Services can also surface clean items to remove particulate matter and dirt using a HEPA vacuum. 

After surface cleaning, conservators will return your items in clean plastic. They can also use archival packing like a new acid-free box or archival tube if you request it.

Some items may need additional conservation such as washing, repairs, or display solutions.

Tip: Schedule dropoffs and pickups with your conservation studio using Artwork Archive's Schedule. All tasks can be synced to your calendar for easy project management. 


Why should I have my items archivally packed?

The optimal way to store your valuables is in pH-neutral, high-quality materials that protect them from light, pests, accidental handling, and environmental soils. 

The most common type of archival storage is in a museum-quality box with unbuffered, acid-free tissue paper.

Tip: If you're placing your preserved items back in storage, don't lose track of their new location. Note the particular drawer, shelf or hanging rack of your object with Artwork Archive's sub-locations.


Can I clean my fumigated items myself? 

Some clothing and textiles can be cleaned after fumigation using every-day methods.

Washable vintage clothing can be hand washed or dry cleaned, shoes and leather accessories can be wiped with a microfiber cloth, and carpets can be vacuumed. 

More delicate valuables should be vacuumed with a micro-suction tool as described in the vacuuming handout on the MTS website

Vacuuming items that were impacted by microbial activity should be done while wearing a mask, in a well-ventilated area, away from living spaces or collections storage areas. Wear a layer of protective clothing, such as coveralls, a lab coat, or an apron. Vacuum bags should be disposed of afterward, and all vacuum attachments and hoses should be rinsed.

Tip: Know exactly what your object is made of and whether it is ok to clean it yourself. Notes like this can be added to your object's Artwork Archive record to refer back to whenever you need the information.


Log your fumigation and cleaning activity in your CMS

Don’t lose sight of the conservation care you’ve applied to your artworks and historic objects. Online collection management systems like Artwork Archive make it easy for you to log into your account from anywhere, on any device and add condition status changes, images, notes and condition reports to your object’s record. 

Plus, you’ll have access to your conservator’s contact information and recommendations within your account as well. So that you’ll always have their expertise at your fingertips.


Try Artwork Archive's online art collection management tools for free.

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