When we visit a museum, we are in the presence of items which could be hundreds, thousands or even millions of years old. These ancient relics have survived for centuries and have remained for you to admire today. It makes you wonder which everyday items which you may take for granted will stand the test of time. Safeguarding these relics is the key to preserving the knowledge and history of the world, therefore it is key that we focus on their preservation. Damage over time due to natural factors is inevitable, but museums have access to a range of technology which can be used to help prevent this.

artifacts can deteriorate for a number of reasons – The Smithsonian identifies these as:

  • Pests — a particular problem in taxidermy specimens or natural materials, pests won’t pause to consider the historical value of one textile from another before chowing down!
  • Water — leaks, floods, and damp wreak havoc on artifacts.
  • Neglect — forgotten artifacts in storage, poor record keeping, or simply not following process can cause artifacts to succumb to other deterioration factors on the museum’s list.
  • Physical force — from the obvious force of impact to vibrations and pressure, physical force can damage any museum artifact or artwork. This is why museums display their pieces in cases or behind designated barriers. Of course, this isn’t always fool-proof. For example, did you know Michelangelo’s David has a delicate flaw in its ankles? A slight shift in angle, a strong vibration from a train or footfall, or a natural disaster like an earthquake would send David tumbling.
  • Theft and vandalism — self-explanatory, the mishandling or purposeful damage to artifacts and art can leave them irreparable.
  • Light — light damage can cause fading or cracking in some artifacts.
  • Fire — rather self-explanatory, fire can cause the utter destruction of an artifact, through burning or the resulting smoke damage
  • Pollutants — gases and dirt can lead to the swift decay of certain artifacts. Chemicals in cleaning can also erode away materials. Even the oils on your hands can be harsh enough to pollute some delicate artifacts.

However, the two major causes of deterioration were identified as humidity and temperature. These two elements are noted to be able to accelerate the rate of decay, growth of mould, or warping. Without adequate protection, the cost of artifact lost can be immeasurable, from a loss of monetary value to a loss of any physical record of that item.

A notable example of this is the Oxford Dodo, the most complete single dodo specimen in the world. And yet, all that has survived is the head and a foot thanks to an infestation noted in the specimen around 1755; feather mites are highlighted as the main culprit for devouring the taxidermy dodo’s torso, wings, and feathers. Preservation Equipment advises that a high humidity can encourage fungal growth and pests in natural materials; could better temperature and humidity controls have saved more of the last dodo specimen?

Damage caused by pests represents a great threat to artifacts, however, the scale and speed at which temperature and humidity can damage items is even more worrying. The Telegraph reported how, when the glass roof of the Natural History Museum was cleaned of around 150 years’ worth of dirt, it was quickly discovered that the gathered dirt and the decision to remove the solar reflective film from the glass had had unintended side effects. The article outlines how temperatures in the museum have rapidly increased, reaching more than 40°C, with specimens in the museum suffering extensive and potentially irreversible damage already. The skin of specimens is cracking and drying, fading as they are sun-bleached, and whale skeletons are also degrading as a result. The museum is not only looking into replacing the solar reflective film, but also at installing a new HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system to try and save the artifacts.

These problems are not only limited to museums in the UK – historical artifacts in Denmark have been damaged recently due to increased damp and mould within museum storage spaces, which were found to be lacking adequate air conditioning systems and ventilation. CPH Post commented that the museums are using old buildings such as barns or lofts to store the artifacts, which means they aren’t being protected by any level of temperature control. More than 70,000 items are at risk of being destroyed as a result of 118 buildings used for storage being marked as riddled with mould.

To preserve the world’s history and knowledge, it is clear that we have to think carefully about which technologies are most effective in controlling temperature and humidity levels. The optimum temperature is between 16°C and 20°C — though temperatures as low as 10°C probably won’t cause harm, the risk of condensation grows for anything below 10°C. In terms of humidity, the advised relative humidity is between 40% and 70%, to avoid drying out items or encouraging pest or fungal infestations. It has also been noted that rapid fluctuation in humidity can be problematic.