Beetle infestation in museums increased during the lockdown. So they fight back to defend their art from annoying creatures


What is the greatest enemy of a museum restorer? If you are addressing directly to men in ski masks, messy visitors, or even climate-related threats, you would be wrong. A much more mundane threat haunts these experts’ nightmares: bugs.

And the problem has only gotten worse lately. mAll pests are most active in spring. Restorers were alarmed when museums had to close at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

“The combination of the spring breeding season and dark, undisturbed galleries with no visitors due to lockdowns created favorable conditions for pests to thrive,” Madeline Corona, associate restorer of decorative arts and sculpture conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, recently told Artnet News. “It’s no surprise that museums around the world saw an increase in pest activity during this period. “

In the Getty, shortly after the lockdown began in Spring 2020, routine pest monitoring showed an increase in the numbers of clothes moths in some of the decorative art galleries. After the museum tracked down the uninvited guests who were looking for one of the most popular pieces in the South Pavilion’s decorative art galleries – the 18th-century pink French daybed.

This level of intense concern about infestation is hardly unique in LA. As Corona puts it “Pests are a constant, inherent challenge in maintaining collections around the world.”

Mistakes everywhere

According to a spokesman for the British Museum, the greatest threat comes from clothes moths Tineolla bisselliella, which “may pose a risk to collections with a high organic content”. These common moths eat clothes, tapestries, and even carpets.

Other pests that pose a significant threat to museum collections, particularly in the UK, are beetles like Silverfish that eat books, paper, and cotton, and carpet beetle larvae that eat silk, wool, fur, and feathers.

Silverfish in three pieces on the torn cover of an old book.

Even in museums that do not have original textiles or organic objects in their collections, such as the quirky London cabinet of curiosities Sir John Soanes Museum, clothes moths are still a threat. “They threaten reproductive textiles such as wool curtains and carpets and are more active here than other pests such as carpet beetles and silver fish. “ explained the museum’s restorer, Jane Wilkinson.

Fortunately, many UK institutions had carefully thought out procedures in place to avoid infestation during lockdown. Neither the British Museum, Sir John Soane’s Musuem, nor the Victoria & Albert Museum, who maintains an impressive 14,000-piece collection of garments from the past five centuries, reported an increase in pest activity during the lockdown – in fact, the V&A reported a decrease in pest infestation.

However, experts from all three museums attributed this to strict cleaning procedures, as well as official IPM (Integrated Pest Management) guidelines and procedures, which enabled them to keep the necessary expertise on-site at all times, monitor insect traps, inspect collections, and so on, environmental controls .

Gameifying pest control

Not all institutions were able to keep their eyes on site at all times during the pandemic. With the limited number of experienced museum staff on-site, it became more important than ever to ensure that frontline staff – from cleaners to security guards – were trained to spot pests that might look harmless but could wreak havoc on collections .

To this end, Helena Jaeschke, restorer at the consulting firm Southwest Museums Development in Great Britain, even developed a card game called Save the Museum. The deck consists of 26 cards, each with life-size silhouettes of common pests with more information about the damage they are doing to the back of the card.

Save the museum deck of cards.  Image about conservation resources.

Save the museum deck of cards. Image about conservation resources.

“You can leaf through the cards to find out about pests and possible treatments during a coffee break or to challenge each other with a game,” said Jaeschke in a message. “It’s a great way for everyone to identify and control pests and protect our heritage.”

The cards are available for buy online. Decks have been shipped to around 138 museums in the southwest that have joined the region’s Pest Partners Initiative, along with kits designed to help museums identify, capture and track pest activity.

Counting moths at the mead

Teamwork and proactive scrutiny are also part of the battle plan for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “We have a comprehensive integrated pest control program, “said Lisa Pilosi, the conservator responsible for object conservation at the Met.” EWhile there are certain people dedicated to this program, it is a kind of museum-wide responsibility to think about that.”

Though the museum has one IPM program administrators and scientists focused on preventive conservation issues, including pest identification and pest control.

This includes maintaining moth traps throughout the building, “especially in areas that we think are problematic. These assigned employees check them regularly and we keep a museum-wide directory of where we can find moths. So it depends on where it’s ticking. “

Adult clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella).  © Historyonik.

Adult clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella). © Historyonik.

In addition, Pilosi says: “OOur guards are very attentive and always look at the collection and what’s going on. “

A few days after the shutdown in March 2020 is a group including the heads of the debt collection emergency team made a list of about 30 employees in charge of collections who were either within walking distance of the museum or close enough to get their car into. she identified wherever there was art or an important archive, be it in the exhibition, in the depot or in libraries. “We made a list so that every two or three days a team of three from this larger group would go through some of these rooms … So we had everything in view. “

Experiment with micro wasps

Some British institutions are pushing the practice even further with scientific experiments. The National Trust, a heritage charity that cares for more than 500 historic buildings – including castles, ancient monuments, gardens, parks and nature reserves across the UK – is testing an inventive way to combat the surge in pest infestation.

“There’s no doubt the lockdown is appropriate for our resident beetles,” said Assistant National Conservator Hilary Jarvis. The problem was exacerbated by mild winter conditions followed by a particularly warm spring, and the result was that 173 National Trust properties reported record numbers of insects, an overall 11 percent increase in pests from the 2019 report.

Blickling Hall in Norfolk, a historic property believed to be the birthplace of Anne Boleyn, was particularly hard hit by clothes moths that damaged some of its collections, including a tapestry of Peter the Great that was gifted to the landowner by Catherine the Great in the 1760s Years.

A card dispenser with c.  2,400 parasitic wasps, in an oak drawer.  © Historyonik.

A card dispenser with c. 2,400 parasitic wasps, in an oak drawer. © Historyonik.

Following scientific research, the company decided to experiment with a natural pest control method by releasing microscopic wasps, which are “natural enemies” of the clothes moths.

Called Trichogramma evanescens, these tiny parasitic wasps are only 0.5 mm long and almost invisible to the human eye. They come in small card dispensers with up to 2,400 wasps that can be discreetly hung or placed on the property. Without being harmful to humans or other animals, the wasp parasites look for moth eggs and lay their own eggs in them to hatch new wasps. After they have laid their eggs, they die naturally and disappear “inconspicuously in the house dust”.

The experiment also includes the use of specially prepared female moth pheromones, which could disrupt the mating of the adult animals by confusing the male moths.

The National Trust began the study in February 2021, and Jarvis reported limited initial results earlier this month at the recent Pest Odyssey conference. Joined organizations such as the UK Pest Odyssey Network Support and advice from specialists in combating cultural heritage. Early data at six months suggest a greater decline in moths when the wasps were used in combination with the pheromone disorder compared to when the pheromone disorder was used alone. Jarvis said these numbers should be viewed with caution, however: warmer weather and the increase in pest control increases in 2020 raised comparable numbers, which could give the wrong impression of the magnitude of the decline.

The process continues and gMuseums around the world are at stake.

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