Thirty thousand objects. 170,000 photographs. 16,000 archival items. These numbers make up the Whatcom Museum Collection and Curator of Collections, Becky Hutchins, is in charge of protecting each piece from harm. Threats are as small as the powderpost beetle and as large as a fire or flood.
For the smallest variety of threat, Hutchins employs an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) approach as an environmentally friendly way to monitor and regulate the bug factor throughout Museum facilities.
Using sticky traps, we can determine if our collections are in danger. Caught specimens are examined, and, depending on their numbers and where they are in their lifecycle (larvae or adult), we can determine how hospitable our environment is to them and what their food sources might be. By changing the temperature and maintaining moisture levels, monitoring our collections and keeping the museum spaces well maintained, we’re able to create an unfriendly environment for pests, and protect treasures like historic maps of Bellingham Bay and 100-year old women’s finery.
But who are these unwanted visitors? Turns out museum collections are at greatest risk from a few common insects, Hutchins explains, because these pests have favorite food sources as well as preferred habitats that are often found in our collections and storage spaces.
These winged menaces feed on all the protein they can find — from silk to feathers! Their wingspan is only a half-inch, but can have a big effect. Once mating has occurred, the females lay 40 to 50 eggs over a course of 4 to 21 days that hatch into eating machine larvae. These live for an unusually long period of 50 days before they pupate, all the time feeding on the fibers of feathers, wool, leather, cotton, linen, silk and even synthetic materials.
Booklice (or psocids) feed mainly on the starchy glue that binds books, but are also known to munch on paper, plywood, and plaster. They can grow between 1/25 and 1/13 of an inch — tiny but mighty! The adult female psocid lays up to 60 eggs in its short life of about 2 months.
As their name suggests, with enough time, these little beetles can reduce a post of wood to powder. They can live for years in a larval stage burrowed inside of furniture, frames and other objects. Small piles of dust indicate where the larvae have entered and small holes where the adult beetles emerge. Powderpost beetles prefer the sapwood of oak and other hardwoods and many of the insects will continue to breed in an infested piece of wood for generations.
Hutchins and the Museum staff work together to find new ways to protect our collection through simple practices of good housekeeping and maintenance — for example, making sure that exterior doors have tight seals, and taking care not to leave food out. Flowers, though gorgeous, don’t find a long-term home in the Museum since they can carry in, and attract, critters.
Visit www.museumpests.net to learn more about how collectors like museums and libraries work to keep treasures safe from pests!
Illustrations by Rifka MacDonald