Pests forum helps museums protect valuable collections

By Lisa O. Monroe

How do you keep termites from eating your Van Gogh?

For expert answers to questions like this and other subjects ranging from bed bugs to rats, the Museum Pests 2014 Forum is the place to be this month.

Museum experts from the Smithsonian, Natural History Museum in London, and the Spurlock Museum in Illinois, and others, as well as entomologists and software representatives, will lead the two-day conference, co-sponsored by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation on March 27-28. Their topics will focus on how to keep insects and other pests from destroying valuable museum collections.

About 100 participants are expected from the U.S., Canada and the U.K  Because many pests are regional to specific areas – the U.K. does not have termites like the U.S. does, for example – the annual forum’s location this year should draw a large contingency of museum representatives from states in the South.

The Foundation’s Ryan Jones and Patty Silence will take active roles in the conference on what’s called “integrated pest management”or IPM.

What makes this subject important? Well, most museum experts are very tight-lipped about disclosing actual losses and the costs associated with museum damage by pests. But, as Silence explained, the actual damage lies in the fact that the museum pieces each are unique pieces of art.

“We are charged with protecting all the collections under our watch; generally, they are irreplaceable,” she said.  This is why IPM for museums and our conference is important.

“The most significant damage occurs by pests eating things,” she said. “In terms of objects with cultural significance, this is irreversible, as it destroys original material. Repairs to termite-damaged wood or moth-eaten fabric require attaching new material to old. This diminishes value, as the original is compromised.”

Expensive pests

The costs escalate and multiply, she explained, when the pests move from a single object or textile to an entire storage location. Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, with its living history museums spread over a large area in addition to its traditional museums, make it a somewhat unique testing ground for managing pests.  Jones and Silence hope to share useful insights and discoveries that others can take back and use at their own facilities.

Silence, who is conservator of museum exhibitions and historic interiors, will give several tours, including one of Colonial Williamsburg’s state-of-the-art collections storage and conservation facilities. There, visitors will see the “contaminated holding” and pest treatment areas where new acquisitions are held prior to admittance into the museums.

She will also give behind-the-scenes tours of the Historic Area, from a pest’s and pest controller’s perspective, and tours of the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Art Museum and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. The museum tour will demonstrate how pest management fits into the operations of the 10,0000+-square-foot museum facility and its dining, retail, preparation and exhibition space.

Jones, an IPM specialist, will present lectures on “Control Options for Termites and Wood Borers” and “Control of Rodent Pests and Exterior Issues for Historic Sites and Landscapes.”

He also will present a paper on “Preserving History: Subterranean Termite Prevention in Colonial Williamsburg.”

Hired three years ago, Jones was the foundation’s first integrated pest management specialist.  In this distinct role, he is in charge of keeping more than 600 buildings  free of pests, and educating and training other staff to be his eyes and ears.

It’s a monumental task, even with landscape workers and other staff technicians trained to apply many of the actual pest treatments.

On a typical day, you might find Jones inspecting a historic home for damage, training technicians to use pesticides, or fielding a request from staff members who have found ants under their desk.

“It’s a unique job,” he said. “When you get to the scene, it’s best not to have an opinion. It’s like being a detective.”

Best bets for control

If pests are found, they are usually dealt with in one of several ways:

  • Barrier film, a multi-layered metal and plastic film can be used to contain an oxygen scavenger and the collections item, killing all stages of insect pests by robbing them of oxygen.
  • Collections items like textiles or wooden artifacts can be placed in a deep freezer for 10 days. Freezing is safe for most art and is effective in eliminating pests.
  • Heat is another method that is effective, although it’s not used as often by Silence and Jones.

Jones and Silence said educating staffers about good hygiene is a big part of the job, and that they always try to take the least invasive approach when pests are discovered. For example, ant problems could simply be the result of half-eaten sweets in the office garbage can – a problem that could be resolved without the need of chemicals.

Jones has even come up with “bug fact sheets” that will help identify an insect and  suggest ways to keep pests out their work area.

Being on staff full-time means Jones can see the “big picture” along with patterns of current and past pest problems, Silence said. In fact, he can sometimes predict when and where a problem will occur before there’s any noticeable sign of one, due to a sophisticated data tracking system developed by a member of the Integrated Pest Management Work Group.

Each time there is a pest outbreak or issue, Jones, who’s co-chair of the work group,  records the data in the system. “We end up with a ton of data showing exactly how the pests work here. You start to see trends and that’s what allows you to be proactive,” he said.

Carpet beetles are one of the biggest pests he sees among the many rugs and other textiles used in the historic buildings. And because the Revolutionary City and its living history areas are different from the typical museum, the base of knowledge he’s building through his research and data records could prove useful to others working in non-traditional museum environments.

Jones also works closely with Silence to check new acquisitions coming into the museums, and to protect existing collections.  As a conservator, Silence says she’s more of a “holistic healthcare provider.”  She makes sure the environment is appropriate for the objects in the museum at all times, monitoring conditions like temperature and humidity, and works to prevent damage before it occurs.

When new collections or objects come in, they must be cleaned, inspected and placed in a holding area for observation before they’re allowed into the museum space.

Keynote speakers for the conference are David Pinniger and Tom Strang. Pinniger is an entomologist and the pest management strategy adviser for English Heritage, major national museums and galleries, and many other museums and historic houses in the UK. Strang is a senior conservation scientist at the Canadian Conservation Institute.

Lisa O. Monroe is a Richmond-based freelance writer. 

Read more about:

Museum Pests 2014: Integrated Pest Management for Museums, Libraries, Archives and Historic Sites

Podcast: Where Art and Science Meet

Museum conservation


  1. Jim W says

    This is great information for the present in future, but how did peoples of the 18th century control pests like termites? Or did they control them at all?

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