Agents of Deterioration

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Teaching the public about Agents of Deterioration

Since the National Postal Museum (NPM) has such a diverse collection we have long been aware that different preservation techniques are needed for different types of artifacts. However, one of the few standards that does remain constant for us are the 10 Agents of Deterioration. We use these “agents” to create a plan that allows us to detect and prevent any damage to our collection no matter its material, age, or history. Knowing the Agents of Deterioration and preventing them is important for private collectors as well so they might preserve family treasures for future generations. Below is a basic summary of the 10 Agents of Deterioration in no particular order:

Wrestlers on a stamp

Physical Force can damage artifacts directly by causing rotation, deformation, stress, breakage and pressure. Examples of force: impact; shock; vibration; pressure; and abrasion. Most physical force is caused by general use but also by accident. The museum prevents physical force damage by displaying artifacts in cases or behind barriers and storing artifacts in cabinets. At home, artifacts can be placed in cabinets or out of reach.

Take a Bite Out of Crime stamp

Theft and Vandalism is willful damage to artifacts that is either premeditated or a “crimes of opportunity”. Museums take precautions against theft and vandalism by putting artifacts in cases and having high-tech security features. At home, similar precautions can be made based on the value of your collection, but locking high value artifacts away is an easy step to prevent theft or vandalism.

Letters Preserve Memories stamp

Neglect is the loss of the artifact or the information associated with the artifact, such as names, dates or locations. Also, not providing proper preservation is another form of neglect since the collections will continue to deteriorate. NPM keeps thorough paper and electronic records pertaining to every artifact in its collection relating to its history and provenance. This is equally important for individuals trying to preserve and track family heirlooms.

Smokey the Bear stamp

Fire can cause smoke damage, partial or total loss of the artifacts. As a result, it is important that fire prevention be given the highest priority possible. Fire suppression systems are used at the museum to control any fire that may break out, but at home it is important to have a fire extinguisher accessible. If some artifacts are of very high value it would be worth looking into acquiring a fire-proof safe.

Underwater sea life and scuba diver stamp

Water damage can result from natural occurrences, technological hazards, or mechanical failures. Water leaks and floods are the most common causes of water damage, but can also simply be caused by spilling a beverage. Water damage causes warping and tidelines to your artifacts. The museum stores its collection at least six (6) inches off the floor and inside cabinets in anticipation of a leak or flood. Storing artifacts off the floor and not placing drinks near your most treasured artifacts will drastically cut down on the danger of water damage at home.

Mouse on a stamp

Pests, such as microorganisms, insects, and rodents, can make a feast out of artifacts. They are attracted to artifacts made from plants and animals, such as paper and fabrics. They especially enjoy cardboard boxes, so best not to store any family treasures in them. Having a regular pest inspection to check for infestation is vital to preventing any damage. NPM only uses environmentally friendly pest control products and we never use aerosols due to chemical hazards (see next agent).

Chemistry stamp

Pollutants can be natural or man-made gases, aerosols, liquids, dust or dirt that are known to accelerate decay of artifacts. Aerosols and liquids that are commonly seen around artifacts are household cleaners, bug sprays, and detergents. The chemicals within these sprays can attach to the artifact and will slowly cause it to decay. When cleaning near an artifact, spray directly onto the cloth, away for the object and then wipe down the surface.

Tiffany Lamp stamp

Light damage is caused by overexposure to natural or artificial light. A loss of historical and monetary value can occur when artifacts fade from exposure to excessive light. The best method to prevent light damage is to store artifacts away from direct light. NPM tries to minimize the amount of times artifacts are exposed to light by rotating out objects on exhibition and when they are in storage, they are kept in dark cabinets.

Go Green stamp

Incorrect Temperatures that are too low or too high can damage artifacts adversely based on the material of the artifact, often accelerating deterioration. Attempt to keep temperatures between 65°F and 72°F. It is important to keep artifacts out of basements and attics where the biggest shifts in temperature can occur.

Louisiana stamp

Incorrect Humidity can cause more damage than temperature. Large fluctuations in humidity can cause the artifacts to warp or grow mold. Attempt to keep humidity between 35% and 55%. It is important to keep artifacts out of basements and attics where the biggest shifts in humidity can occur.

For more information, please visit the Canadian Conservation Institute’s: Agents of Deterioration