Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Evil "Agents of Deterioration"

Cue the soundtrack from the shower scene in Psycho, it’s time to talk about how the whole world is out to destroy every thing you hold dear. This will be a lesson in the preventive conservation of objects. In other words, the idea is to keep your collections from getting hurt so that they don’t need to be fixed down the road.

But first, let’s go over what I mean by “conservation”. Most people who hear this word think of environmental groups preserving rainforests or saving whales. The conservation I’m talking about is different; it’s to do with saving the things that people make. Art conservators work on paintings, sculpture, and other media, paper conservators treat documents and books, textile conservators treat cloth- you get the idea. I am not a conservator, but as a curator I have to be aware of threats to the things I’m responsible for, and I have to recognize when something is in distress and needs to be treated by a conservator.

Now before you read any further, please be aware that this can be a scary eye-opening topic for people who really care about their possessions. As someone who started collecting antiques at an early age, I was horrified when I got to grad school and learned how inherently unstable my beautiful purses and costume pieces really were. I lost sleep. I stopped buying collectibles and started buying special packaging for those collectibles instead. In other words, the bubble of fun that had previously surrounded my collecting behavior went “pop!” and now I can’t look at my collections without a degree of worry. If you would prefer to stay in Neverland, do not read on.

The things that conspire to destroy your material goods are known in the conservation world as “Agents of Deterioration.”  Everyone has observed them in action, but by then it is often too late to do much about it. So if you want to take steps to protect your precious possessions, here is a list of things to consider.

Agents of Deterioration

1)     Theft. If people steal your stuff, you lose, and who knows what condition your stuff will be in if you manage to get it back. Museums fight this with security personnel or alarms. At home, you can get a security system, or maybe a mean dog.

I wish I knew who this mysterious mustached man
was, since this picture was found in Grammy Rivers'
house and I presume he's a relative. Sadly, he is
now my poster-child for water damage, most likely 
the result of a roof leak. Note the staining that 
crosses his debonair face. Major bummer.
2)     Fire. The same kinds of fire prevention techniques you apply for your own safety usually help to protect your objects, though if you have a sprinkler system, see hazards of flood below. If you REALLY value something, plan to be able to grab it on your way out the door without having to run into a burning room. Better yet, put it in a fire-safe container or get a safety deposit box. If what you really value is an inlaid wardrobe or your carved antique bed, you’re screwed, so move on to things you can actually do something about.

3)     Flood. Water damage can be really devastating to objects, especially metals and organics. Oh wait, that’s pretty much everything, isn't it? So how do you work around it? Well, not living in a flood zone is a start. If the nearby river overflows there’s not much you can do but move things to higher ground, so hopefully you have a second story with some extra space. For smaller crises, like frozen pipes or overfilled bathtubs, there are little alarms you can buy that sit on the floor and go off like a smoke-detector if they get wet near something you want to protect. Simply enclosing your precious items in sealed plastic containers is not necessarily protective though, so if your mind jumped straight to the as-seen-on-tv ‘space bags’ or plastic bins, think twice. If any water gets in a plastic container, it will have entered a container that wants to trap it. That leads to moisture retention and mold and it can hurt more than it helps. Also consider this: flood insurance is a good idea for your home, but might not help you with precious collections. I doubt it covers professional conservation treatment of water-damaged art, photos, textiles, or furniture. And how do you replace one-of-a-kind heirlooms? You may need a specific rider on your home-owners insurance if you can get one.
Carpet beetles (left) and moths (right) are among the most common pests 
that damage historic costumes. Carpet beetles eat plant matter, like 
cotton and linen, while moths tend to prefer animal products like wool.

4)   4)  Pests. Mice, bugs, mold, and other pests may find your beloved heirlooms ever so tasty. Pests gather where there are food sources, and pretty much anything organic may be a food source for some kind of critter. Pests generally prefer environments with some warmth and humidity, and since people also prefer environments with some warmth and humidity, most of the things we live with are at risk. Pests will vary a lot depending on whether your collection offers a nice nesting spot (as is the case with clothes), or a tasty meal (as is also the case with clothes). Keep an eye out for droppings, little holes accompanied by powder of some kind, and of course the pests themselves. If you find pests, don’t go straight to a chemical solution for killing them. Chemicals can hurt your possessions as much as they hurt the bugs living in them. The same goes for mold. Mold loves humidity and dark, so if your closet is closed off from light and the air-conditioner, be afraid, very afraid, to put anything organic in there that mold might prey on. If you do find mold, don’t just spray some chemical cleaner on it. My favorite mold killer is sunlight, when used in moderation. Overall though, I have yet to figure out how to make my home collections pest-proof, so mostly I just keep watch so that the creepy-crawlies can’t get a strong foothold in my storage areas. Also, if you got a mean dog in response to #1, keep an eye on him, too.

This is one of the purses that Grammy Rivers gave me when we Found it in 
Nanny's closet (story here). Unfortunately, damp conditions in my house 
have caused a mold breakout on the cord. A close-up of the fuzzy white stuff 
appears on the right.
5)   Relative humidity (Rh) and Temperature. Different materials respond differently to changes in relative humidity. Any organics (things made from plants and animals) are likely to be hydroscopic, which means that they absorb moisture from the air. For example, wood expands and contracts as it absorbs or releases moisture into the air. Dramatic changes in temperature affect relative humidity. Hot temperatures allow more moisture to be retained in the air, while cold temperatures can cause condensation and dry air. Fluctuations in Rh and temperature can mess with your favorite possessions in a few ways:
  • First, as a rule, expansion and contraction is not good. These are the forces that cause roads, varnish, paint, and pretty much everything else that cracks to crack. Cracks indicate mini-breaks where previously things were not broken. Not good. Not always fatal either, but when expansion and contraction occurs over and over as seasons change and objects age, the forces take a cumulative toll.
  • Second, high temperatures and moist air speed up chemical reactions. So let’s say you have some brass heirloom jewelry. Metals like brass do not absorb moisture, but if they are exposed to damp, they are more likely to corrode. In the case of brass, corrosion is usually green because of the copper in it. The warmer the air, the faster the chemical reaction that causes corrosion.
  • Third, warm moist environments promote mold and make life comfy for other pests as well.
  • Finally, each material that goes into making an object might have its own sweet spot for the perfect Rh/temperature. For example, books get moldy if too moist, and brittle if too dry. But what if your object is a composite? For example something like a pair of shoes might suffer damage as wood soles and leather uppers expand and contract at different rates (see inherent vice below).

A pair of 18th-century shoes in the Metropolitan Museum 
of Art (Accession No.  C.I.63.35.6a, b) have leather, wood, 
and metal components that respond differently to changes 
in humidity and temperature.
So to sum up, Rh and temperature are out to destroy your things. You can invest in special controlled environments for each valuable you own if you have endless funds and don’t mind living in rooms lined with Plexiglas cases, but if you want several things that are not made of the same material to coexist in one comfy living space, the best you can do is to try to keep the Rh as stable as possible, preferably in the Goldilocks zone where it’s not too wet, and not too dry, but juuuust right. 

6)   6)  Pollutants. That’s right, even the air is out to destroy the things you love. Why? Because all of your things are comprised of chemical elements and compounds, and the air contains chemical elements and compounds that are looking for something to bond with. Sometimes the elements in air and the ones that comprise your things are irresistibly attracted to each other. Like soul mates, they bond-- especially if temperature and humidity set the right mood for their romance. Take for example silver and sulfur oxide. They are like Romeo and Juliet. They join together no matter how destructive the results, bonding to create the blackish compound we call tarnish. And here’s the big scary: once that occurs, it can’t really be undone. The Romeo Silver and Juliet Sulfur-dioxide will only be separated in death, because when you remove silver sulfide from the object, it takes the original surface—including some of the silver—away with it.  That’s why frequently-polished silver looks so soft and aged.

There are a lot of pollutants that can cause undesirable chemical reactions like this. These include the oils of your skin (if you have the nerve to touch the things you own), oxygen, which you pretty much can’t live without, and dust, which you generate every day with dead skin cells and hair. Then there are the invisible gasses floating around. If you ever hear museum-types talking about off-gassing, they are not rudely bringing up tummy-troubles, they are talking about how materials like paint and wood and plastic can release gasses into the air over time, and these gasses may contain pollutants. So if you want to protect your things from pollutants, keep them away from people, dust, anything gassy (even if you don't know it's gassy), and air. What could be simpler?
This image of a quilt from shows 
fabric dyes exposed to light will fade over time. The area that
had been covered shows the original reddish color.

7)    Light. Light can cause chemical deterioration and fading in certain materials. Museums often prevent this kind of damage by getting UV filters for overhead lighting and windows. At home you may just want to keep vulnerable materials out of direct sun and make sure your favorite art pieces are framed with UV-filtering glass. Textiles and paper are particularly vulnerable. So lest I gave you the impression that a nice sunny spot was the perfect counter-attack for the mold that might lurk in dark spaces, consider that bubble burst. Sunlight will kill mold, but exposure should be kept to a minimum if you go that route. Paper, for example, will almost always decay at least a little bit in sunlight, so you are sacrificing some stability to kill the mold if you put a moldy paper in the sun. You just have to consider which would harm the paper more, or call in a professional to treat the item.

8)    Inherent vice. Great googely-moogely I hate this one. The concept of inherent vice is this: your object will self-destruct and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it. Here’s an example you might see regularly: paper made from wood contains compounds like lignin, which are highly acidic. Unless wood-based paper is treated to remove acids, it will literally give itself acid burns until it gets so brittle that it flakes apart. Ever find a newspaper you left around the house for a while? It’s probably yellower than it used to be, right? That’s the acid in action. Your paper’s self-destruct button was activated the minute it came out of production. Doomed. Not only will acidic items burn themselves to death over time, but they can even spread the destruction. A wooden trunk releases acids into the air, exposing anything you store within to an acidic environment, and if you wrap something in newspaper, the acids from that paper can migrate to the item you wrapped in it. Sometimes clothing that has brownish orange spots isn’t stained, it’s actually burned by acid exposure. Other objects may have inherent vice because the chemical bonds that hold them together simply age and break over time. For example, silk and cotton threads start out with pretty long, strong fibers, but over time the bonds in those fibers break. And then there are the composite objects… Take for example the pair of shoes that I mentioned in #5. The leather will need some moisture in its environment or it’ll get too brittle, but moisture may cause the nails in the shoe soles or shoe buckles to corrode. Also, acids in the wood and leather promote metal corrosion. So when you put different materials together into one object, it’s nearly impossible to make the environment perfect for every component, and this is the perfect formula for inherent vice.
This fan, one of the recent finds from Nanny's closet, is an example of a composite object that suffers from inherent vice. Much of its yellowish appearance may have been caused by its storage conditions (wrapped in acidic newspaper in an acidic trunk since the 1940s), but note the brown stains on the sheer fabric of the fan. Since the fan was stored closed, those are not from the wrapping. The fan blades are made of wood though, so acids from the wood may have caused burns on the fabric. Alternatively, the adhesive used to stick the fabric to the blades may be acidic or deteriorating. Early adhesives often include animal products from fish or horses. Basically, this fan's components are harming each other over time.

So what do you do with all of this information? The more you know about the forces that put your favorite collections at risk, the more you can work to avoid them. I'll spend some time in future posts talking about the low-budget approach I've developed to protect my costumes from the agents of deterioration. It should be clear, however, that sometimes there’s not much you can do, especially in home-storage situations. Personally, I had to come to terms with the idea that man-made things, like people, are not immortal. Inanimate objects, including the clothing and accessories I collect, have a limited lifespan, and the more I handle them, the shorter their life will be. Knowing this, I have resolved to care for them as best I can, but I enjoy them as much as I can as well. Ultimately there’s not much point in collecting and preserving things that you never get to see.

1 comment:

  1. I too have been facinated by "Loves Eyes" and have lectured about them in history classes.... you may like to look at this site, as it on the subject....