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What are the effects from exposure to pests in a museum’s collection?

Can cause significant damage to a museum’s collections particularly when they are stored and infrequently accessed.

How can museums safely prevent pests from entering and destroying an institution’s culturally valuable artifacts? This page illustrates the types of pests likely to invade a museum environment and how Integrated Pest Management (IPM) can safely eliminate an infestation without the use of harmful pesticides.

Pest Identification

The chart below outlines various types of pests that may be attracted to collection materials and the types of artifacts effected:

Type of pest Artifact effected
Fabric pests:
black carpet beetle (larva and adult)

larval stage causes damage to fabric, fur, feathers, anything made of animal fibers

Related species: varied carpet beetle, common carpet beetle and furniture carpet beetle

clothes moth (larva and adult)

larval stage causes damage to woolen clothes and objects such as feather hats, dolls and toys, bristle brushes, weavings, and wall hangings

Related species: webbing clothes moth and casemaking clothes moth

Wood pests:
powderpost beetle wooden artifacts, frames, furniture, tool handles, gun stocks, books, toys, bamboo, flooring, structural timbers
drywood termite wooden items of all kinds
Stored-product pests:
cigarette beetle books, dried plants (herbarium)and seeds
drugstore beetle books and manuscripts; also beans and spices
Moisture pests:
molds-fungi wood, textiles, books, paper products, fabrics, insect specimens
psocids (booklouse)

dried plants, herbaria, insect collections, manuscripts, cardboard boxes, furniture stuffed with flax, hemp, jute or moss

Also referred to as booklice (plural)

silverfish

paper, paper products and textiles (cotton or artificial silk), glue backing on wallpaper

Related species: firebrats

The Integrated Pest Management Approach

Implementing a variey of non-toxic approaches to create an inhospitable environment for pests.

Check the collections frequently . . .

Making regular scheduled inspections of all collections, whether on display or in storage, is a necessary first step in detecting pest infestation. Presence of feeding debris or frass (wood that has passed through the digestive system of a beetle) is an indication of infestation. Appearance of exit or feeding holes in wood items, silken cocoon cases, hair falling from fur or pelts, droppings, or moth or beetle pupae are also signs of infestation.

The use of small sticky traps placed in areas throughout a facility and inside storage units can aid in tracking and identifying pests. At the Museum, traps are checked biweekly and any pests found are identified and recorded. Reports are generated monthly to track areas and the types of insects found. Problems are immediately addressed by isolating and treating objects and eliminating the insect source.

Housekeeping and vigilance are important . . .

The presence of dust, dirt and food are attractive to pests. Keeping the storage and exhibit areas clean and food-free is an effective approach to preventing a pest infestation. Implementation of policies and procedures for incoming acquisitions, such as careful examination and isolation for 48 to 72 hours, is also recommended. This practice enables the Museum staff to monitor new artifacts and ensure that they are free from infestation. Inspecting the facility for cracks around windows, doors, floors and foundation is also important as these areas may be easy access for pest infiltration.

Environmental controls . . .

Controlling temperature and humidity in a museum environment is not only a concern for the collections, but for pest prevention as well. Low humidity and to a lesser extent low temperatures reduces the chance of pest infestation and slows down the growth of existing pest populations.

Checking the building envelope . . .

Securing the interior and exterior areas of the building can prevent pests from entering the building and ultimately the collections. Sealing infiltration areas (cracks and gaps in foundation, windows and doors), correction of drainage problems and installing sweeping gaskets on exterior doors are good measures in preventing pests from coming inside.

What to do if signs of infestation occur . . .

The Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach advocates preventive activities that avoid the use of chemical treatment. Two methods for insect eradication using the IPM method are given here.

Anoxic treatment (the elimination of oxygen from a microenvironment) involves the use of oxygen impermeable bags with some form of oxygen scavenger inside (depriving the pest of oxygen). This treatment is generally utilized for small groups or single objects that are infested.

Freezing in a large commercial freezer that can reach temperatures of 0° F or lower is an effective way to treat collections. Materials such as herbarium specimens, books, and textiles can be treated for infestation in this manner. Some objects, such as those made of wood, lacquer and bone, may be adversely effected by freezing.

If non-chemical treatments are not practical . . .

Chemical fumigation of museum objects is normally done in special fumigation chambers, vaults or bubbles. In severe cases, an entire building may be tented and fumigated. The choices for chemical fumigation vary according to the objects that are infested.

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