Conservation Internship at Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh

In this week’s blog, we hear from Katharine Richardson, Conservation Intern at the Centre for Research Collections, University of Edinburgh…

I am currently mid-way into a 10-week internship with the Centre for Research Collections (CRC) at the Edinburgh University Library. Having spent the last four years working in historic houses, I was keen to gain experience in a different working environment. I’m thrilled to have been given this opportunity to work with the research collections at Edinburgh University. It has been very interesting to learn about the challenges of managing a working research collection and the conservation issues that come with it.

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‘Channelling the Insect’ – Integrated Pest Management at National Museums Scotland

Every year National Museums Scotland (NMS) runs a series of workshops that aim to share knowledge of heritage related skills across the museum community. These popular workshops are free and cover a range of topics from collections care to handling skills. I recently had to opportunity to attend a workshop on Integrated Pest Management at the National Museum Scotland hosted by Preventative Conservation Officer, Catherine Haworth.

A wide variety of professionals attended the workshop from interns and volunteers working in large institutions to collection care managers in historic houses. Some had little or no experience of preventative conservation while others had come to refresh their knowledge of pest managment.

The day began with an overview of what Integrated Pest Management (IPM) actually is. IPM aims to prevent infestation of pests before it becomes a problem by monitoring for insects and modifying the environment to discourage pest activity.

In order to monitor for pests, we firstly needed to know what types of materials are at risk. Organic materials such as wood, silk and seeds are mostly in danger of infestation. Collagen based material such as fur, feathers, wool and vellum are also particularly tasty to pests.

Now that we understood what were the vulnerable items in our collections were, we went on to look at the types of pests are attracted to these objects. Furniture beetles, carpet beetles, moths and silverfish were all described in detail along with their favourite collections snack.

Next we had a series of exercises to put this new knowledge into practise. One exercise I found particularly useful was looking at photographs of objects that had been damaged, but there were no pests to be found. We had to identify the pest by looking at the type of damage and the debris left behind. I thought this could be easily applied to a real life situation, as often the insects could be gone by the time the damage is discovered.

After a fabulous lunch, we moved on to putting IPM into practise. Firstly monitoring pests through blunder and pheromone traps was explained; when and where to place the traps, as well as how often to check them. One top tip Catherine gave us was to cut a pheromone trap in half and stick it on to a sticky trap. This not only saves time as there is only one trap to check, but it also saves money as only half a pheromone trap is being used each time. The importance of good housekeeping and reducing the risk of pest by changing the environment was also highlighted in this section.

The NMS quarantine procedure was then described. This was a fairly simple procedure, that again could be used in a range of institutions. At NMS all new collections items are placed in a freezer at -30°C for 7 days. However, a commercial freezer that goes down to -18°C could also be used for a longer period of time to have the same results. This is simple way of killing any pests, before they have the opportunity to enter the building.

No matter how careful we are, there is always the risk of infestation. So treatment of object was also discussed. Treatment often depends on the object rather than the pest itself. For example, a heat treatment couldn’t be used for a wax object. However, certain treatments are not as effective for some pests.

To put this new learning into use, we were given a practical exercise to prepare an object for quarantine. We were asked to wrap a chair with tissue paper and polypropylene sheeting in preparation for freezing. The results of the 5 groups were very different. Some wrapped the chair very tightly with tissue and sheeting, while others wrapped theirs loosely. When this was completed, we compared results, and were told the NMS method of doing this. NMS suggests wrapping the object with tissue paper tied with cotton tape and using a plastic sheet (preferably one sealed on two edges, like a tube) to cover it with as little openings as possible so there it less to tape (quicker to cover and take off again at the end!). This was very different to what my group had done with lots of separate sheets cut to the lengths of different parts of the chair and stuck with lots of tape! I thought this was a good way of demonstrating the technique as getting it wrong means I will always remember not to do it like that again! It also made us think about the practicalities of wrapping, and unwrapping it which we wouldn’t have appreciated if it was just explained in through a powerpoint presentation.

Preparing chairs for quarantine

Preparing chairs for quarantine

Finally, we heard about the NMS IPM policy and had a brief introduction to how to set up our own policy. Overall, I thought that the whole day was really well put together, and the mixture of talking and practical activities worked well. The informal atmosphere encouraged discussion and we were able to compare different pest problems from all our places of work. These types of workshop offer a great opportunity to learn about subjects that may not be accessible for all institutions, especially low funded or volunteer-led organisations. This not only helps to promote and aid understanding of the conservation sector but provides better care for our shared cultural heritage.

I will leave you with one piece of sage advice gained from the day; “channel the insect”. When dealing with a pest infestation or considering an IPM policy, put yourself into the mind of the insect. Where would you hide? What would you eat? and how would you enter the store if you were a pest? This will help you create a successful IPM policy and keep calm when finding unknown creatures in your collections! However, if you are channelling the insect, just remember not to eat that tasty looking stuffed parrot at the back of the cupboard….

Emily Hick

Project Conservator

Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University