Providing collection care, preservation and conservation treatment services to collectors and collecting institutions.
by Wendy Claire Jessup
Fifteen years ago, museums routinely used chemical pesticides on and around their collections. The notion of Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, was considered radical by many. Though collection caretakers recognized that chemical pesticides might have negative effects, many curators and collection managers saw them as a necessary evil.
Over the past decade, however, museums have begun embracing integrated pest management as an optional strategy.
Pests and pesticides have always been of concern in collections. Publications such as Pest Control in Museums: A Status Report (1980) and its revision A Guide to Museum Pest Control (1988), were some of the first to discuss pests, pesticide treatment options, legal and regulatory concerns, health and safety concerns, and the effects of pesticides on collections in an integrated and comprehensive manner. Although large institutions, such as the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Support Center and the chief curator's office of the National Park Service, were developing IPM policies and implementing IPM programs by 1986, it was not until the publication of A Guide to Museum Pest Control and its final chapter ("Integrated Pest Management: A Program for Museum Environments" by G. D. Alpert and L. M. Alpert) that the concept of IPM was clearly articulated and made available to the greater museum community. Since then, museums and libraries have applied for and received grants to conduct pest management assessments and to develop IPM policies and programs. Now, assessment of pest management and IPM programs is incorporated into most general conservation surveys.
Integrated Pest Management is an ecosystem approach to the control of pests. Originally developed for agricultural and urban pest management, IPM for museums, libraries and other collections employs a variety of techniques to prevent and solve pest problems in an efficient and environmentally sound manner without compromising the safety of collections, museum staff or visitors. Museum IPM programs have two goals: protect the museum and its collections from pests, and reduce the amount of pesticides used in the museum. Pesticides may damage collections, affect research results, and cause health problems for staff and visitors.
The components of an IPM program for museums and libraries include monitoring, identification, inspection, habitat modification, good housekeeping, treatment action, education and evaluation. Once established, these components become cyclical activities that are part of the institution's maintenance calendar. IPM activities determine the type and extent of biological activity, prevent pest access and survival, establish damage and action thresholds, develop treatment actions to modify conditions that permit pest access and survival, and develop actions to take when infestation is discovered.
Monitoring is an important part of any IPM program. It provides baseline information about museum conditions and identifies pest species in and around the collections. Monitoring helps assess the effectiveness of any treatment. Monitoring choices may differ depending upon the type of pest and types of collections. Techniques can include visual inspections of building areas that may harbor pests, visual inspections of collections, and use of a variety of specialized traps. All monitoring data must be documented. It also must be evaluated regularly to determine the presence and extent of any pest problem. This information can be used to develop an appropriate treatment strategy and assess its effectiveness.
Not all organisms found in the museum environment are pests to the collection. However, their presence can indicate conditions conducive to pest access and/or survival. For instance, spiders cause no known harm to museum collections, but a healthy population of spiders indicates the presence of other insects.
Regular building inspections are vital. Inspections of the complete interior and exterior will identify construction and maintenance problems that permit pest entry and survival. Exterior building components and landscaping can provide habitat for insects and vertebrates that may enter the building. Improper grading and vegetation around the building increase the amount of moisture in a building, facilitating the propagation of pests and mold. Similarly, dust and trash inside a building provide nutrients and havens for pests as well as an improved environment for mold.
Regular inspection of the collections is equally vital. All pest-vulnerable materials need to be inspected on a regular schedule. Certain types of collections may require more vigilant inspection. For example, waterfowl, marine mammal specimens and anthropological materials made from greasy, protein-based materials are especially prone to infestation and require more frequent inspection. Similarly, certain plant specimens, such as bamboo and Brassicaceae, are also prone to infestation by specific pests.
Treatment includes any activity that reduces the potential for pest access and survival in the building. The selection of a treatment depends upon identifying the type and extent of the problems and understanding the effectiveness of the action to be taken. These actions can include physical changes to the building, such as the installation or replacement of weatherstripping, or an operational change, such as adjusting custodial schedules so that debris and trash are removed from the building at the end of each day. A building maintenance plan and housekeeping program will ensure that all areas of the building, including offices, storage areas, mechanical rooms, basements and food service areas, are kept scrupulously clean, free of debris and with all areas prone to harboring pests closed.
Many early IPM efforts concentrated on monitoring for pest identification and population densities as well as developing techniques to prevent pests from gaining access to buildings. However, eradicating infestations remained a vexing issue. Changes in regulations for the use of fumigants, such as ethylene oxide, and emerging information about damage to a variety of museum materials from fumigants, coincided with the growing popularity of IPM. This led to a search for alternative pest eradication methods.
Over the past two decades, conservators and conservation scientists have investigated the use of other pesticides, including phosphine and sulfuryl fluoride (Vikane). Also, they investigated non-chemical treatment alternatives such as low temperature and high temperature, microwaves, gamma radiation, reduced oxygen environments (such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon gases) and the use of oxygen scavengers such as Ageless. These new developments are based on a systematic analysis of the effectiveness of treatments against museum pests as well as their limitations, including effects on collection materials and human beings. Museum and library staff now have an array of choices that are potentially less harmful to collections, staff and visitors than were the fumigants used in the past.
Education and communication are critical to the success of an IPM program. IPM policies can only be implemented through physical and operational changes. Staff and volunteers need to know how they can help minimize pest problems.
Clearly, a primary benefit of IPM is the reduction of pesticides in the workplace. Thus, the museum's administration and governing authority are at reduced risk for litigation concerning occupation and visitor safety. Costs associated with medical monitoring as well as employee illness are reduced. IPM benefits the museum's visitors because they will be coming into a public institution that is using fewer toxic materials and, because of regular sanitation, is scrupulously clean. IPM also benefits emergency personnel, who may need to respond to fires and other problems, by reducing the total amount of toxins in the institution. IPM benefits the collections because fewer chemicals will be used that may cause damage or alter the composition of collection items. Additionally, IPM requires that the stewards of the collections regularly inspect and monitor their condition. Thus the collections receive greater attention.
Finally, IPM benefits the environment because fewer non-target organisms are at risk of pesticide exposure. As stewards of cultural and natural resources, museums are increasingly recognizing their responsibility for the global environment, and a reduction in pesticide use is a sound environmental preservation action.
As we have become more aware of the benefits of IPM and the efficacy of IPM programs, more museums are embracing the methodology.
Wendy Claire Jessup is President of Wendy Jessup and Associates, Inc. (703-522-2801) in Arlington, Virginia. Previously employed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., she provides preventive conservation and collections care consultation to museums. This article is reprinted with revisions with permission from the author and The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC). It first appeared as "Integrated Pest Management: Not a Fad or Fancy Term but a Valid Operational Strategy" in AIC News 1997, 22 (3): 1-5. AIC owns the copyright of this article. An IPM bibliography can be obtained from Wendy Jessup.