As a museum curator, I know that packing items correctly for storage is vitally important. This is something that trainee museum curators are taught on the MA course and which is drummed in during our working lives every time we come across damage, as it’s so often due to incorrect packing. Most people aren’t aware of this, and why should they be?
If organic items are stored incorrectly several things can happen:
- They can be broken
- They can become dusty: as dust is acidic it will eat away at the item, damaging the surface
- They can become a target for insects or rodents
- They can become mildewed or mouldy
This last is what I will talk about here. Recently I worked with a collection that had been packed for international transport and then put straight into storage in the same packing. The storage conditions were not optimal as the collection was placed into an attic with (as with all attics) extreme seasonal temperature fluctuations. The collection had been in storage for between 7-20 years depending on individual items.
The collection had been carefully packed for international transport into cardboard boxes, then into packing paper and then either bubble wrapped or put into plastic bags. This was adequate for the transport of a personal collection, but on arrival, the items should have been removed from the bubble wrap and plastic bags and re-packed for storage. While useful to stop damage during transport, the plastic around each item creates a micro-climate. Fluctuating temperatures in the storage facility had added to the micro-climate, causing water vapour collected in the winter’s chill to condense inside the plastic in the warmer summers. Bubble wrapped items had become mildewed. Mildew is a superficial growth made of hyphae, small filaments of fungus, which is mainly associated with garden plants but can also affect organic items indoors.
Once mildews and mould take hold they can grow quickly and we were fortunate that these were only small growths, easily brushed off. Correct re-packing for long term storage (a sturdy acid free box, to prevent acid leakage and insect ingress, acid free tissue rolled into balls to support the items, further museum-quality materials for delicate or very important items) will keep this collection in a far better condition even in a poor environment such as an attic.
Sometimes it’s too late. Some things are in such a poor state that the mould has damaged the item irretrievably and it has to be disposed of. Simple regular housekeeping checks can prevent this and keep collections going for many more years.