Museum Pests- Huge Threat to Cultural Heritage


World Pest Day is also known as World Pest Awareness Day, is celebrated on June 6 every year. The day is dedicated to spreading awareness of pest management among people around the world. The first World Pest Day was celebrated on June 6, 2017, at Beijing Hotel, China. The explorer of this day was the Chinese Pest Control Association. It was co-sponsored by the Federation of Asian and Oceania Pest Manager’s Association, the National Pest Management Association, and the Confederation of European Pest Management Associations. It is estimated that there are 900 million insects that come under the category of pests, such as beetles, ants, bees, wasps, flies, moths and butterflies, etc.  Pests have been “pestering” people since time immemorial. Historians believe that cave dwellers might have used smoke to get rid of mosquitoes. In 2500BC, it is believed that people warded off insects and mites by using sulphur compounds. In 1200BC, the Chinese came up with a revolutionary idea to control pests. They attempted to tackle the problem of pests like caterpillars and beetles by using an army of predatory ants. Quite intelligent, isn’t it? Well, the human species have always found ways to tackle genuine problems of pests. But sometimes they behave imprudently while tackling all the insects and other living organisms (thinking of all as pests) which they don’t like or want around themselves. The problem of pests is found everywhere from houses to even heritage sectors.  Most of our heritage areas like Museums, Cultural Centres, Libraries or, Archives have precious and irreplaceable collections which are persistently at higher risk due to the infestation of pests.

Museums preserve the cultural and natural property of the past for future generations. The natural history collection in the museum consists of astonishing richness and is full of immense significance. They act as a vital source for primary information on the diversity of life on earth, for today and our coming next generations. However, in India, there are different varied temperatures and humidity of the tropical climate that leads to severe problems of biodeterioration. These environmental factors combined with air pollution, bad building maintenance, and low budgets that make the long-term storage and preservation of valuable collections very difficult for museums, libraries, and archives.

The environmental conditions generally found in museums are warm, dry, and undisturbed, which provide pests with a suitable environment to live and breed. Even the objects themselves provide the pests with a food source and material to survive. Furthermore, museums and museum-like intuitions often include cafés and offices that contain food and waste, which encourage pests to stay. Often pests are introduced into the museum within objects that have come from elsewhere, such as on loan from other institutions, or donated by members of the public. Pests can be unintentionally moved around the museum and offsite when objects and packaging materials are transported. The pests that directly damage museum collections are moth, beetle, and rodent. However a small number of other insects, such as silverfish, booklice, and woodlice, can also harm museum’s valuable and irreplaceable objects. In addition to the direct damage to objects caused by the aforementioned pests, other animals, such as birds, may also indirectly cause damage to collections. Bird’s nests, which are often found in roof spaces or chimneys, can encourage and sustain the population of pests by providing a food source and living accommodation.

The majority of facilities dealt with pests in a reactive way, such as fumigating objects to kill the pests after the infestation has occurred or monthly spraying in museums. Such reactive approaches to pest control typically involve the application of some type of pesticide to control or prevent infestations. Despite routine applications of pesticides in a museum may not be sufficient to prevent complete infestation. We get accustomed to such a type of approach through tradition. Even though pesticide chemical applications directly on the objects may damage or destroy museum collections and produce undesirable residues. In addition, certain methods involving the use of non-chemical controls such as heating, freezing, anoxia, N2, or CO2 treatments may also harm the materials if they are not used with proper care of the objects. Therefore, a more preventive and proactive approach to this problem is needed to control and prevent infestations and reduce the possibility of damage to materials. Besides the above problems, other factors like hazards to humans, animals, and the environment should also be considered simultaneously.

Preventive Conservation is the planned and controlled change to the environment and surroundings of an object to reduce or eliminate, as far as possible, the known aspects of its deterioration. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plays a major role in this, as certain pests found in museums can lead to devastating or irreversible deterioration of objects in the collections. The term “Integrated Pest Management” covers a more holistic approach that ties together many of the activities of preventive conservation. The integrated pest management program should be developed according to the needs of the building and the collections it owns, as well as the variety of activities that take place within the building. The program should be considered as a process of evolution rather than a revolution. It should encourage participation by all those working on the site with the full involvement of staff at every level. To develop an effective IPM strategy, with above mention points it is also very important to understand and recognize the key elements of successful pest control such as avoiding pests, preventing pests, identifying pests, assessing the problem (based on inspection and trapping, and identifying the high-risk parts of the collection building and furniture, life cycle of pests, especially insects), solving pest problems, and very important, reviewing the IPM procedures.

Nowadays, an increasing emphasis is being placed on environmental sensitivity and the reduction in the use of traditional pesticides. Worker and public safety are also becoming a greater concern with the increasing likelihood of lawsuits and litigation over past exposures to potentially hazardous materials. Rather than decide to abandon all attempts to control the pests, less hazardous alternatives to the traditional methods are to be considered.

Dr Fatma Faheem, Researcher and Conservator, Associated with Department of Museology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh

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