Skip to main content

Disclaimer: Consider this Object Care 101. We are making the general assumption that the objects you have are in good condition. If you have an important object that is in bad condition, we suggest you consult a type of knowledgeable professional called a conservator. He or she can assess your item and develop a custom care solution. The Michigan History Center staff cannot provide conservation help, but you can find a conservator on the American Institute for Conservation’s website.

Deterioration Happens!

Protecting our things can be hard, especially when there are many ways that our precious items can be damaged. Think about your favorite old family photograph, or a sweater passed down from your grandmother, or the silver platter that’s been in your family for generations. These items that are so special to us can be ruined even when we try to keep them safe. Here at the Michigan History Center, we’re always on guard against the things that could damage or destroy our stuff … what we call “secret agents of deterioration.”

It’s important to remember that it is in the nature of all materials to deteriorate. All deterioration is due to the natural forces of physics and chemistry.

  • Physical damages are caused when handling, moving, bending, flexing, and other manipulations, is transferred to the structure of a material, like wood or metal. This energy causes wear, tearing, fraying and other breakage that results in damage to the physical structure of the material.
  • Chemical mechanisms for deterioration involve chemical reactions that break down the structures of materials and molecules. For example, fading results when light causes chemical bonds in a colorant molecule to break down.

It is not possible to stop deterioration or to reverse changes that have already occurred in the materials of objects. It is only possible to use preventive methods to interfere with the process of deterioration to slow it down.

What are the Secret Agents of Deterioration?

Through our never-ending battle against these secret agents of deterioration, we’ve gained a wealth of knowledge that we’d like to share with you. After all, the same secret agents that are after our museum artifacts are likely plotting their attack against your own objects at home. Click through the sections below to learn more about each secret agent and how best to fight them.

Careless Handling

Careless handling is one of the main causes of damage to objects. When moving things that are important to you, consider using foam or another form of padding when moving these objects. At the Michigan History Center, we put items on cart and roll them from place to place. Humans can be clumsy, and accidents happen, but if you trip while carrying something that is precious to you, the outcome could be devastating.

It is also important to consider how old an item is, and how age and use may have weakened the object over time. For example, we never pick things up by their handles! Since they were used so much during the objects’ use-life, handles are generally the weakest point of an artifact.

Improper Storage

Have you heard that the worst place to store valuables is in the artic or the basement? That’s because a proper environment is needed in storage. In general, you want conditions that contain low light levels, limited exposure, moderate temperature, stable relative humidity above 25% and below 55%, and clean air.

When packing objects for storage, they should be completely covered. No part of the object should protrude from the box, file folder, drawer, or cover. Soft items should be padded to avoid sharp folds. Items should be fully supported and not allowed to hang over edges.

All items should be raised four to six inches off the floor for cleaning and for protection from leaks and minor floods. Object storage containers should be very clearly labeled so one does not have to open and unpack items to find things.

Inappropriate Packing Materials

Something you might find surprising is that storage materials like boxes, bins and paper can contain chemicals and other agents that contribute to the deterioration of artifacts. If you have ever scrapbooked or put together a photo album, you’ve seen the words splashed all over packaging: acid free! This is because conventional papers and cardboard contain acids that, while not harmful to humans, can cause paper, photographs and other organic materials to decompose over time.

There is a term in museum collections called “off-gassing.” You know that “new car smell?” Or the smell of a freshly painted room? That smell is the result of off-gassing. It is when finishes, paint, glue, and other substances emit chemical particles. These particles are called VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, and like paper acid, they can degrade and destroy other materials that are stored in and around them. Most plastics, including items made of vinyl and PVC, release chemicals that can damage nearby items.

I bet we’ve all heard that cedar chests and closets are the ideal place to store important textiles and heirlooms. These chest and closets were thought to be good because they seemed to help reduce the likelihood of pest infestation in woolen and silk items. But I have bad news: cedar does not kill any pests. Its aromatic gases are simply irritating for pests and make them less likely to stay in the vicinity for a prolonged period. The gasses emitted by cedar, some of which make it smell so good, are very acidic and cause deterioration, dark discoloration along the edges of folded items, and embrittlement of organic materials like quilts and linens.

How to Fight Secret Agent Breakage

Proper Handling: An easy way to fight breakage is – you guessed – to handle your objects properly. As we’ve discussed, materials naturally degrade over time. The handle on that old steamer trunk you love was probably used heavily over its lifetime, and, as a result, is the most likely place where degradation will start to occur. Lifting the trunk by those handles could easily break them, resulting in unintentional damage.

The same is true for ceramics, like teacups and pitchers. The most delicate place on these items are, yes you guessed it, the handles. If you want to avoid accidentally snapping them off, hold from the bottom and never by the handle.

Even heavy pieces of furniture are susceptible to handling damage. Wood joints in old dining chairs, for example, can become loose. By lifting from the top, they can dislodge and cause the furniture to fall apart. To avoid this, lift chairs by their seats, or wherever you determine is the most solid place.

Proper Storage: Museums rely on storage boxes, padding and batting that are manufactured by companies like Gaylord, because they have done all the leg work in ensuring that VOCs are not present in their materials. You too can enjoy the benefits of museum-quality storage products – check out their catalog. University Products, Hollinger, and Talas also offer such products.

Proper Protection: For some materials, like metals, silks, and papers, handling them with bare hands can also cause damage. The oils and dirt present on our hands can stain, and even chemically interact with, the objects we want to preserve. A single fingerprint on a silver teapot can, if not wiped off immediately, literally etch itself into the metal. All the polishing in the world can’t remove that stain.

When handling these items, it is best to put a barrier between your skin and the object, usually with gloves. Nitrile are the current preferred method, because they have low resistance to friction, are easy to slide on, have a higher degree of flexibility, and are solvent resistant.

Every one of us has seen fabric, be it old curtains or the cushions of your favorite outdoor seating, fade after being exposed to sunlight for an extended period of time. If you’ve ever wondered why the lights are so low in museums, it’s to protect the objects on display from visible and ultraviolet (UV) light.

Another factor at play is infrared radiation, which can increase the temperature in an environment. Infrared radiation isn’t visible to the human eye, but the energy absorbed from it can increase an object’s temperature. When your object heats up, it can deteriorate faster – especially if it’s made of organic materials.

How to Fight Secret Agent Light

Proper Lighting: Over the past three years, the Michigan History Center has been switching to LED lights, which emit little to no UV rays and almost no heat. You might want to try switching to LED lights as well to help protect your own precious objects. LED lights also cut down on energy costs, so it’s a win-win!

Of course, if you don’t visit or use your storage space frequently, consider no lights at all! If you turn the lights off whenever possible, your objects will stand a good chance against Secret Agent Light. If it’s too difficult to remember to turn off the lights all the time, consider installing a motion sensor – here at the Michigan History Center we use motion-activated lights in some storage areas to ensure the lights are off any time there isn’t a person trying to use the space.

Proper Window Treatment: What if your storage area has lots of windows? Consider investing in window shades to decrease daylight in the room. You could even go a step further and install UV-absorbing plastic over your windows.

The American Museum of Natural History has an excellent article that goes into further detail about options for UV-absorbent products, the science behind light damage, and more. Check it out.

Temperature and Humidity are separate dangers but work together. Extreme temperature and humidity fluctuations are a death sentence to any object.

Stability is Key

For the home collector, the most important rule of thumb is to keep your objects in a place where temperature and humidity are the most stable, year-round. Usually, this is in the living spaces. It is never in an attic, where temperature fluctuations can be extreme, or in a basement, which tend (at least in swampy Michigan) to be highly humid.

Fluctuations in relative humidity can cause moisture to condense on metal objects and hard surfaces. Paint starts to crack, iron objects will start to rust, wood veneers will warp. Have you ever had a wooden door swell during the summer, only to find it stuck shut? Wood expands and contracts as air moisture raises and lowers. Over time, this can cause weaknesses in the grains to crack and splinter.

High heat, low humidity conditions, say next to a radiator or heat vent in winter, can make leather and paper objects brittle and disintegrate. The fibers in fabrics and textiles will weaken, which can cause breakage. Wooden objects shrink, which can result in frames and joints becoming loose and pull apart.

High heat, high humidity conditions, (think of the attic in summer!), invite mold, bacteria and other nasties to grow on organic materials, including leather, paper, wood, and textiles. This environment can also speed up the corrosion of metals.

High humidity in general, regardless of the temperature (think basements!) causes mold growth, wood objects to swell, metal corrosion, and so on.

How to Fight Secret Agent Temperature/Humidity

While individual materials have different “ideals” regarding preferred temperature and humidity, museums aim for relative humidity of between 45% and 65% (ideally 55%) with a temperature around 70 degrees. Often, museums use digital dataloggers to track fluctuations in temperature and RH.

Of course, this consistency is extremely difficult to maintain 24/7/365, especially if you don’t have fancy dataloggers. Try to get as close to 55% humidity and 70 degrees as possible, but don’t fret if it proves to be impossible. The most important thing is to keep temperature and humidity stable.

Have you noticed any small, or irregular holes in your things? These could be caused by unwanted pests, such as moths, munching on your items. Pests are potentially most disgusting threat to your treasured items. Three main pest threats are:

  • Microorganisms – Bacteria and mold
  • Insects – the bad kind: moths, cockroaches, termites
  • Rodents – Mice and rats

Pests – all kinds – want three things: food, water or nesting materials. Our objects stand in for what the pest would normally search for in its natural environment. More specifically, here’s what each of our types is looking for:

  • Microorganisms: bacteria and mold need moisture and food. They can grow on organic and inorganic materials, if the conditions are right. They tend to prefer paper and parchment, because they are rich in nutrients and easily digestible. Textiles, wood and leather can also be susceptible to molds.
  • Insects: They specialize in feeding, burrowing, and breeding in objects. And different types of insects prefer different mediums.
  • Powderpost Beetle: Their larvae burrow through wood, leaving frass, which looks like sawdust, behind. Like termites, they can seriously damage the structure of wooden objects.
  • Moths: Organic fibers, like wool, are their favorite. Their larvae will chew through wool, fur, leather. They also like to much on feathers, silk and taxidermy animal mounts..
  • Silverfish, cockroaches and book lice: old paper and book binding glue. They just love it.
  • Rodents: Mice and rats will damage any material that can be chewed or gathered for nesting. Any materials that are stored in the path of rodents searching for food will be soiled by urine and fecal pellets.” Any collection object made of starch, protein, or fat will be consumed or damaged and soiled or removed to another location.

How to Fight Secret Agent Pests

Museums have entire plans that they call “Integrated Pest Management” in order to prevent, respond and recover to pest issues. Homeowners probably don’t need to invest in a pest disaster recovery plan, but can borrow some concepts from museum plans to protect their heirlooms.

  • Avoid – Do whatever you can to avoid attracting pests into your home, or to the area where your precious items are. Can you avoid or remove common pest attractors?
  • Block – Build your anti-pest fortress. The best thing to do is tighten up areas of entry into your entire home. If they still manage to get in, make it difficult for them to find and get to your artifacts.
  • Detect – Every few months, do a thorough assessment of your items. Does something look different? Do you see holes where they weren’t before? Are there small piles of frass under your antique dining chair? The quicker you detect a potential problem, the easier remediation might be.
  • Respond – First, remove the item from the environment. Put it in quarantine in a plastic bag or bin. Call a conservator right away. He or she will be able to tell you what to do. Different pests have different solutions. Conservators will value the artifact first, and recommend treatment plans that will result in the least amount of damage to your item.
  • Recover – Recovery is about doing a final report of sorts. Take some time to assess your environment, and make needed changes to clean and clear it of factors that will attract pests again. Thoroughly clean and sanitize the area.

“Inherent Vice” is definitely the Secret Agent with the best name, but it is actually the absolute worst of them all. Inherent vice refers to properties within an object itself that ensures its eventual destruction. A few of the most common artifacts that suffer from inherent vice are silk, early plastics (like Bakelite), rubber, vinyl and film/photographs.

  • EXAMPLE 1: Silk
    Silk was made in the orient and was sold sold by weight. Some manufacturers “weighted” silk with metallic salts, like arsenic and tin. Metals salts were also added to make the fabric heavier to affect its drape and appearance. These metallic salts deteriorate over time and form chemicals that attack the silk fibers, leaving them brittle and easily fractured.
  • EXAMPLE 2: Old ink made with iron compounds
    The standard ink formulation between the 5th and 20th centuries included iron salts and tannic acids from vegetable sources – it’s actually still sold today! The iron and acids eat away at paper, creating a decidedly uncool stencil.
  • EXAMPLE 3: Vinegar Syndrome
    Found in film and negatives made from a cellulose acetate plastic, vinegar syndrome is inherent and is made worse by warm and humid conditions. The symptoms are a pungent vinegar smell followed by shrinkage, embrittlement, and buckling of the gelatin emulsion.
  • EXAMPLE 4: Early plastics
    Chemical bonds in early celluloid plastic, and Bakelite, which was the first synthetic plastic, are known to break down in simultaneously horrific and fascinating ways. Bakelite contains incredible amounts of formaldehyde, asbestos and other extremely toxic polymers, so it is also potentially dangerous.

How to Fight Secret Agent Inherent Vice

The bad news is that there is no preventing inherent vice from destroying your precious object; the good news is that you can prolong the object’s life. Slow down deterioration by keeping the object in a colder environment and by using special “black and white” paper that has charcoal to absorb the chemicals that can harm the object.

If you have any items particularly susceptible to Secret Agent Inherent Vice that are still in good shape, it is important to:

  • Keep in cool, dry conditions.
  • Keep away from UV light.
  • Don’t crowd a display. Allow room around the item to “breathe.”

Remember that chemical degradation can happen FAST! It will probably smell bad, it might be sticky. If the object has metal parts, they will corrode. If you’re particularly unlucky, the item may even collapse on itself. If you suspect you have inherent vice in one of your objects, contact a conservator. Do not try to fix anything on your own. Don’t YouTube it!

Secret Lives of Michigan Objects

On display through May 2020

Explore what it means to collect and care for the artifacts that tell Michigan's stories, from strange objects we've never displayed before to meaningful objects from your childhood. This special exhibit features plenty of opportunities to share your thoughts, give feedback, and even help decide which artifacts should be added!

Wide shot of the Secret Lives of Michigan Objects exhibit space with a large green introduction label in the foreground.

Search the Digital Archive