Thursday, September 20, 2012

Spurlocks’s collections manager pioneers use of IPM at museum

Spurlocks’s collections manager pioneers use of IPM at museum

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You might not expect a person who works at a museum to have a lot of enemies, but Christa Deacy-Quinn does. She’s been the collections manager at the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois for the past 15 years, and she has been affiliated with the museum since her days as a graduate student, back in the early 1990s.

Her enemies? Powder post beetles, which can devour wooden artifacts, such as ceremonial masks. Hide beetles and their relatives, which feed on dry plant and animal matter, including fur, feathers and baskets. Clothes moths and other insects that attack natural fabrics. On top of that, she also contends with all of the typical pests that vex buildings, like cockroaches and mice.

“Most museums don’t want to talk about these things,” says Deacy-Quinn. She does, though. Pests are inevitable at museums, and over the past decade she has developed a thorough program of integrated pest management (IPM) that she’s enthusiastic to share with others who face the same foes.

[Photo: Christa Deacy-Quinn inspects a Serbian woolen skirt. By Heather Coit; reproduced by permission of The News-Gazette, Inc. Permission does not imply endorsement.]

In the past, it was common practice to combat museum pests with chemicals.  According to Deacy-Quinn, “If you see a hundred-year old animal mount in a display and it still looks great, you can be pretty sure it was treated with something really nasty.” Old standbys in the chemical arsenal included things like arsenic, lead and mercury.

Past methods of pest control also tended to be reactive, meaning chemicals were used to combat active infestations, but preventative measures were not especially well coordinated.

Deacy-Quinn’s approach is more holistic. It’s integrated pest management adapted to the special conditions of a museum—a facility that hosts thousands of visitors in a year, and one that regularly takes in new objects, some of which may have been held in less-than-ideal conditions.

Deacy-Quinn’s job has been made somewhat easier by the Spurlock’s move ten years ago from Lincoln Hall, where museum exhibits shared space with busy classrooms and offices, to its current stand-alone location on Gregory Drive in Urbana.

Integrated pest management relies heavily on the exclusion of pests. At the Spurlock Museum, this is accomplished with a three-foot barrier of inorganic material on the ground surrounding the building, and careful attention to all aspects of the building envelope.

Deacy-Quinn and her staff are also vigilant about preventing pests from being brought in. This means, for example, that no fresh cut flowers or live plants decorate the tables at catered events, and even the undersides of food service carts entering the building are inspected for possible insect stowaways.

Integrated pest management is also about maintaining indoor habitat that’s inhospitable to pests. Cleanup after a catered events at Spurlock is immediate and thorough. On a day-to-day basis, employees eat only in designated areas and keep no food at their desks.

All Spurlock employees also agree—in writing—to actively participate in IPM by recording and reporting any encounters they might have with pests. In Deacy-Quinn’s words, “IPM requires a team effort. We’re fortunate that the people who work here are really on board with it.”

Since the museum welcomes so many visitors and takes in new artifacts on a regular basis, some incursions of pests are inevitable. It’s in the treatment of artifacts that Deacy-Quinn is most engaged in the hunt for non-chemical approaches to pest control.

It’s not that she’s a stranger to chemicals. In fact, she holds a license to use them. She just seeks to limit their use, for the protection of both the artifacts themselves and the people who come into contact with them. “If you don’t need to use it, don’t” is her approach to chemical treatments.

Some artifacts, especially small pieces, can be rid of pests by keeping them in a freezer for a week or two. Others, such as a bison hide or a wooden piece infested with powder-post beetles, might not be treated effectively with cold, since they provide pests with a well-insulated refuge.

In cooperation with Susan Ratcliffe, who is director of USDA’s North Central IPM Center, Deacy-Quinn recently acquired a portable thermal chamber to treat items with heat, as an alternative to cold or chemicals. Since this is a novel approach, their work with the chamber will contribute to the scientific research on the possibility of conservation treatments using heat.

Ratcliffe also encouraged Deacy-Quinn to seek third-party certification of her IPM program through Green Shield, an independent, nonprofit initiative based in Wisconsin. Just last week, Deacy-Quinn learned the Spurlock had earned the award, which is a real testament to the strength of the program she has built at the museum.