Caring for Material After Disaster
by Amanda Klaus, Registrar
One of the primary missions of the Augusta Museum of Historys is to preserve and care for the regions cultural heritage. We follow professionally approved standards and procedures to preserve artifacts and slow the normal wear and decay that happen to historic objects. We monitor light levels, perform careful handling, storage and exhibition processes, and maintain level temperature and humidity controls. Many of these same procedures can be done to preserve family treasures in your own home.
Yet, despite the best planning, accidents and even disasters do happen. Nothing is more devastating to a museum or a home than a natural disaster that threatens to ruin the objects we cherish. However, with preparation and some basic supplies we can care for our treasures even in the face of severe damage.
One of the most common types of damage to artifacts is by water. This can be caused by a leaky roof, a broken pipe or a flood. The first step in dealing with any disaster is to assess the damage and form a game plan for clean up. Wet items can potentially warp and grow mold so the sooner you can act the better. First, find a clean, dry place to work. Remember that air drying is always the best option for artifacts, NEVER use ovens, microwaves, hairdryers or sunlight to try to speed up the drying process. However, you can use fans and dehumidifiers to boost your indoor environment. For soiled items gently wipe surface debris off with a soft brush or a cloth; do not rub, this could grind dirt into the object. If you cant get to everything within the first forty-eight hours it is a good idea to freeze paper, photographs, books and textiles to prevent mold growth.
Here are some tips for particular objects:
Lay out photographs face up on paper towels or hang up to dry with clothes pins only touching the borders. Make sure that wet photographs are not touching each other, wet photographs will stick together as they dry. This rule also applies to wet photographs in picture frames, remove the photograph from the frame and make sure it is not touching the glass or the edges of the frame. Air-dry the photos and watch for mold growth.
Place white-only paper towels between book pages to soak up excess water. Remember not to remove dirt by rubbing; this will grind the dirt in further. Change paper towels as needed and pay particular attention to any mold growth; mold can be seen as well as smelled. Freezing the materials can help prevent this. Be particularly careful handling these objects, wet papers are especially fragile.
Rinse clothing and textiles with clean bottled water and blot to remove any excess. Lay out the textile flat and even and allow to air dry.
For upholstered furniture remove the cushions and wrap with towels or sheets to absorb water. Wipe wood surfaces gently and allow to air dry. Monitor all surfaces of the furniture for mold growth.
SMOKE AND FIRE
Other common damages to artifacts involve smoke and fire. Fires have the potential to be absolutely devastating to artifacts and often are too badly burned to be saved. However there are steps one can take to salvage as much as possible from a fire. Begin the process as soon as safely possible, the longer soot and ash stay on an item the more likely it is to incur permanent damage. First assess the area and pay close attention to personal safety, wear nitrate palm gloves, goggles and protective clothing. The gloves are especially important. The oil from your hands can cause the fine soot particles to be permanently ground into the surface of any porous material. Alternatively, you can slide a support such as a clean sheet, board, or piece of cardboard underneath to move items to a stable location.
Important things to remember:
*Do not wipe soot covered items with a cloth, this will embed the soot into the object and cause permanent damage.
*Use a vacuum hose on its lowest setting to remove surface soot and ash. Be careful not to let the end of the hose to touch the object; and do not use the brush attachment, simply let the hose glide over the object picking up surface debris.
*Hardware stores carry soot sponges that you can use after you vacuum. Use them dry and blot them against an object to remove soot. Do not scrub or rub.
*Remember that the heat from the fire can cause glass, ceramics and metals to melt. This can make these objects extremely brittle so be extra cautious when handling them.
*Often in cases of a large fire, items have become wet. Traditional cleaning methods may not work on wet ash and could cause permanent damage. Wait until items are dry for further cleaning. Methods for handling wet artifacts can be applied here.
MOLD AND INSECTS
Other preventable disasters come from mold and insects. Mold growth occurs when wet items are not dried properly or artifacts are left in a humid environment. Mold can cause serious health problems so take precautions before cleaning or handling moldy artifacts. Mold is recognizable from its musty smell and staining. Mold can appear as a velvety growth of almost any color, and sometimes appears as a powdery dust. Gently wipe mold off of hard surfaces. Freezing small objects is a good way to prevent mold growth or deactivate existing mold. However, if the mold is introduced to a humid environment it can reactivate. Deactivated mold can be vacuumed with a machine with a HEPA filter, or other vacuum-cleaning device that does not reintroduce spores into the air.
A whole variety of insects can cause severe damage to textiles, documents and furniture. Insects, like mold, can be attracted to higher humidity levels. Prevent insect infestations by practicing good housekeeping and monitoring insect activity on the outside of the building. Use sticky traps inside placed along baseboards to catch most crawling insects. Mothballs and other chemicals are not recommended. Freezing can also help to kill insect infestation in a particular artifact, especially textiles or furs. Freezing needs to be at very low temperatures for 5-10 days to make sure that all stages of insect growth is eliminated. Like mold, insects can be vacuumed through a screen after freezing by a device with a HEPA filter to remove insects and prevent further infestation. Museums take special care to monitor new acquisitions for pests or mold before integrating them into the collection. You can also do this in your home with family treasures salvaged from a garage or basement.
By being prepared and having a plan, museums and individuals can save many items that have been damaged by a disaster. Remember to monitor your home for leaks or insects, maintain temperature and humidity controls, and make sure that you have functioning smoke and fire alarms. These preventative measures can stop a small problem from becoming a huge disaster. For severely damaged treasures you should seek a professional. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has a free referral service (202-452 9545 or http://aic.stanford.edu), and the Regional Alliance for Preservation (800-843-8482 or www.preservecollections.org) has information on preservation services.