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The old adage that ‘prevention is better than cure’ certainly holds true for collections. Protecting collections from damage is a vital part of the work that goes on behind the scenes at the National Museum of Australia.

Preventive conservation requires a continuous cycle of work involving expertise from the Museum’s Conservation, Registration and Facilities staff.

A colour photograph of a woman sitting at a table with two brightly coloured baskets on top, lit by a bright lamp. The woman, who wears blue gloves, uses tweezers to place small objects in a plastic bag.
Donna Wilks places insects she has removed from a coil basket into a ziplock bag, for later inspection and identification

Providing stable storage conditions

All items in the Museum’s collection will deteriorate over time – this is a natural process but we can slow the rate of deterioration in many ways. Providing stable storage conditions appropriate to the types of materials in the collection is a first line of defence.

Not all objects require the same storage conditions, so it is important to understand the materials that make up each object in order to place them in their optimum storage environment. The Museum has a range of storage environments in its main building and off-site repositories and these have to be maintained and monitored.

Materials analysis

A conservator using XRF to identify the metallic make-up of threads and fabric in a Chinese processional costume from the 1880s. - click to view larger image
Using XRF for analysis of a Chinese processional costume

Given the different characteristics of different materials, it is important that conservators know what they are dealing with. This is where various analytical techniques come to the fore.

X-ray fluorescence

X-ray fluorescence (XRF) provides information about what elements are present in a material. It is a non-destructive technique for identifying metals and investigating the composition of materials such as paints, glass and ceramics.

When a test piece is bombarded with high-energy beams from an XRF machine, it gives out secondary X-rays that provide a unique ‘fingerprint’ of the elements making up the material.

X-ray fluorescence can also be used to check for the presence of hazardous elements such as mercury and arsenic. It can also be used to authenticate an object’s age or origin by looking at its composition.

Micro-fading

High-tech systems are also used to determine display periods for light sensitive objects. The Museum has done extensive work on micro-fading to better understanding the fading characteristics of objects.

This involves exposing objects to a very small pinpoint of infrared light. The results allow conservators to make more accurate predictions about the fading rate of objects if they are kept on display.

Risk management and light levels

Conservator Nicki Smith examines the latest developments in risk management and light levels.

Debugging the collection

A very important aspect of preventive conservation work is the detection and elimination of insect and rodent activity. All items that come into the Museum’s collection are inspected for pests and hazards, and all collection areas are continuously monitored.

If there is evidence of insect activity or of the outbreak of mould, the Museum’s preventive officer isolates the affected collection items and determines the appropriate treatment to eliminate the offending organisms, while keeping the collection items intact.

Colour photograph showing a small brown caterpillar-like create surrounded by pink fabric fibres and small pink droppings. - click to view larger image
Moth larva in fabric

Bad bugs

Insects can cause devastating damage to collections if not controlled.

Carpet beetles, borers, silverfish and case-making clothes moths can make a meal of museum objects, especially those made from fabric, paper, wood, feathers and leather.

Conservators treat infested objects, but they prefer to practise prevention by creating conditions that discourage insects from coming into the Museum in the first place.

Anoxic treatment

To treat insect infestation, objects are snap-frozen at –21°C or placed in an oxygen-free, or anoxic, chamber. The oxygen inside the chamber is replaced with nitrogen, causing the insects to suffocate. Anoxic treatment is used on objects that could be damaged if frozen, such as feathers, bone and electrical equipment.

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