Saving Our Heritage – Pest Management in Museums and Historic Houses

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Over the last ten years, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has been adopted by many museums, archives and historic houses and has achieved considerable success. In the past, there was widespread use of many toxic or persistent materials such as arsenic and mercuric chloride and DDT to prevent textiles and natural history specimens from being destroyed by pests. Most of the ethnographic material collected by Captain Cook and the natural history specimens collected by Charles Darwin is still in our museums thanks to the preventive measures taken. However, many treasures have been lost over the years to pests such as carpet beetle (Anthrenus sp), clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella) and furniture beetle (Anobium punctatum). Sadly, pesticides did not prevent the destruction in the 19th Century of the unique dodo specimen in the Oxford Museum. To preserve collections, conservators and other museum staff have worked to develop alternative strategies for preventing and controlling pests. The IPM strategies based on detection and prevention of pests have been successful in many small and large museums, museum stores, historic houses, galleries, libraries and archives world-wide. There are many parallels with IPM in the food industry; pest monitoring, environment and targeted treatment are all essential components. But in the heritage sector they have to be modified to take account of the special needs of the historic collections and the buildings in which they are housed. It is also essential to recognise that many historic buildings are infested with their own resident populations of insect pests. For example, a building such as the Natural History Museum in London harbours populations of carpet beetles Anthrenus and Attagenus sp. They are living in organic debris [hair, skin and clothing fragments] in voids and dead spaces in the building, but can easily move from these harbourages to infest and damage vulnerable collections. More recently, webbing clothes moths Tineola bisselliella, which are one of the most destructive pests of textiles, have been found living and breeding in large numbers under the floorboards in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Recognition of this risk and assessment of the populations by use of monitoring traps have been key elements in the prevention of damage to collections in these museums. In the past, dichlorvos (DDVP) slow-release strips were widely used to protect textiles and natural history specimens from pest attack. But because of the health risks, the sale and distribution of dichlorvos has now been banned in the UK.
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