Collection Care Diaries: Moths and Learning Materials

In this post, Vicky delves into the trials and tribulations of a clothes moth infestation and the importance of being meticulous with storage spaces- even in areas which are not being used to house collections.

We have been dealing with moths in the gallery since we came back to work after the Winter 2021 lockdown, steadily uncovering more spots where they are feasting. Well, it looks like we have found the banquet.

A lone adult moth was spotted by Pam, from our cleaning team, fluttering close to a cupboard where the materials for our outdoor learning sessions are held. On opening the cupboard, it was clear that there was a substantial problem, as the materials stored inside included wool blankets, rope, raffia, yarn; lots of natural materials that insect pests love. To make matters worse, it appeared that most of the items had not been cleaned before being brought into storage, so dead leaves and dried mud abounded. This cupboard is home to a system of pipes which make it very warm: a cosy environment for insect pests to play. Another layer of damage is that none of the storage boxes were sealed, as they should be, so an infestation could easily spread throughout all the materials in the cupboard.

Clutter and open boxes make it easy for insect pest infestations to spread

Closer inspection by Ann, Head of Collections Care and Access and Textiles Conservator, and Lou, Preventative and Sculpture Conservator, revealed the extent of the infestation, as the wool blankets that are used outside in the garden had a lot of moth damage, with many holes where the wool had been eaten away. Live larvae and frass (moth droppings) were all over the blankets.

A thorough revision of how we store the learning materials was needed, so the whole Civic Engagement and Education team spent a day with Lou, our Preventative and Sculpture Conservator, and Emma, our Conservation and Collections Care Technician. There will now be an ongoing focus to tidy through the learning materials and ensure they are kept neatly in air-tight boxes.

Some moth larvae, and some of the damage they caused

It is important to keep any materials that could either be a food source or a home for insect pests in air-tight boxes. This prevents insect pests from reaching the materials, and in the case that they do make their way into one box, it stops the infestation from spreading. When using materials outdoors, it is key to clean off any leaves or debris before storing them in the gallery, as these would provide further food for any hungry insect pests, as well as potentially harbouring a few stowaway bugs. Neatly stacking the boxes will allow the area to be cleaned thoroughly, further deterring any insect pests.

This incident has reminded us of an important lesson, that insect infestations do not always start in the collection itself. It is often in other storage areas, where the materials are seen as less valuable and therefore treated with less scrupulous care, that an infestation can begin. However all parts of a gallery or museum building are equally important when it comes to reducing the risk of infestations. If the moths come for the picnic blankets, they will stay for the wool tapestries, after all.

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