Controlling Pests That Eat On Art

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Many art and literature lovers are saddened by the Holy Virgin’s condition. Parts of the gown were shattered, burned holes in the chest, and the paint peeling. But the most affected was the head. The upper part is almost destroyed. The ravages of time have bitten off the centuries-old woody form in the truest sense of the word: in this case, it was woodworms. “They have eaten their way everywhere,” says Oliver Mack, shining a flashlight on the spots. “Here you can see the beetles escape holes.” Oliver Mack chairs the Institute for Art and Conservation Technology at the National Germanic Museum in Nuremberg. He is in charge of the preservation of Germany’s treasures in the largest cultural and historical museum. The museum holds treasures that are thousands of years old.

Pest Management for Museum Collections

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Light and moisture attack valuable pieces, as well as pests such as clothing moths, rodent beetles, or leafy fish. Woodworms had already attacked the Virgin before she came to the museum. But even there you will not be safe from animals themselves. “You can’t totally stop them from letting them in,” says Mac. “But you can control it.” Museums have always had pests and they have always been controlled. In the past, a poison wand was often used. Today experts rely on IPM. The acronym stands for Integrated Pest Management, which is a pest prevention concept that museums in the USA and Great Britain have used for a long time. “It’s more on prevention,” according to Bill Landsberger, a biologist. For ten years, he’s been screening unpleasant intruders in Berlin’s state museums this way.

Prevention begins with buildings. Insects enter the museum through small cracks in the doors and windows. They feel especially comfortable when not in trouble – behind shelves, under cabinets, in grooves and especially in archives and warehouses. The Germanisches Nationalmuseum is currently building a new 21-meter-long underground warehouse, completely windowless. Temptation traps are scattered throughout the museum, which Mac and his team constantly watch. This enables them to notice the spread of pests in a timely manner. These can multiply at breakneck speed and cause massive damage. Carpets, historical clothing, leather, wood, paper, and other cultural treasures made from animal materials are particularly at risk. “It worked,” says Landsberger.

But in small companies especially, there is a shortage of staff and expertise. Then he plays experts like Stefan Bebel from Benediktbeuern, who advises museums around the world on pest control and prevention. Biebl noted that they all suffer from the same pests so far. “This transfer from museum to museum is on loan.” Insects are not in art but in transport and packaging boxes. “This is how pests spread around the world,” says Bebel.

Pebble said a Chinese succulent wood beetle just appeared in a German hardware store. Then, this may invade museums like paper fish from before, which is now a real problem. “Two or three years ago it was increasing.” The leafy fish is slightly larger than the silverfish – and they have a huge appetite for paper and cardboard. Biebl has already seen bugs puncturing boards and completely shatter historical musical notes in no time. Experts like him can sometimes shake their heads about modern and contemporary art. Pork bone artwork, peanut heart-filled chambers, Bose’s famous fat stains – all this attracts insects. “This is a paradise for pests,” says Bebel.

But what do you do if worms and mites attack the group? Beneficial insects that target pest eggs or larvae can help. Heat or cold can also kill them. But not every business of art can handle this. Therefore nitrogen is often the preferred method. Like the National Germanic Museum, many homes have their own nitrogen room. However, according to European Union regulations, the procedure is not currently allowed. According to Landsberger, museums should be able to obtain a special permit in the next few months. But the best part is that it doesn’t go that far. “In some things, the damage is simply irreversible,” says Mac. Then we have to live with it somehow. As is the case with the Holy Virgin.

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