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Dealing with flood and mould damaged collections

Our thoughts and best wishes are with the people of Townsville and Western Queensland who are currently experiencing unprecedented rain and flooding.

The Museum Development Officer program is currently in the process of contacting heritage organisations in the flood affected areas to see how they have fared and if they require assistance.  If your organisation needs help please contact Dr. Jo Wills on 0478 307 447 or joanna.wills@qm.qld.gov.au

We have also compiled a list of resources (see below) to help organisations deal with water and mould affected collections.

These resources will also be useful to anyone who is dealing with their own personal collections, so please share the information across your community.

If your collection has been damaged, please don’t risk your own safety for collection items. Stay safe and ensure everyone is wearing suitable safety equipment (see list of PPE below). Only enter flood-affected buildings when you have been given the all clear from the authorities.

Once you have entered the affected area, it is important to allow time to take stock and get over the initial shock and panic. Many people’s gut reaction is to throw everything in the skip. While sadly many objects may be beyond repair, it is very rare for everything to be unsalvageable. The sooner you are able to access objects, the better the chance of successful salvage.

Objects such as ceramics and glass may be covered in mud but otherwise undamaged. Many water and mould damaged paper and photographic material can be frozen indefinitely (see list below for the link to State Library’s instructions on safe freezing). Freezing allows you valuable time to recover from the immediate flood recovery phase. You can then treat frozen material when everything has calmed down and you have more resources, energy, and people available. Please see the links below from the AICCM and State Library for specific salvage guidelines.

And last but not least, ensure everyone involved in the many hours of recovery that lie ahead are well fed and take regular rest breaks. The volunteers who make the cakes and sandwiches are as vital to the recovery as those working directly with the objects.

Personal Protective Equipment:

  • protective footwear (ideally safety boots or safety gumboots);
  • disposable P2 respirator masks, the kind with the valve on the front is best and replace regularly as it gets dirty (N.B. For heavily mould affected collections, a full face mask with P2 or P3 filters would provide better protection)
  • sturdy waterproof gloves for retrieving objects from the water and mud;
  • nitrile gloves during salvage treatment work;
  • safety glasses to protect your eyes from toxic particulate matter including mould (the type with wrap around sides provides the best protection);
  • Tyvek overalls are recommended if mould is present or you are working in very muddy, contaminated conditions;
  • Most hardware stores will stock the PPE listed above.
  • N.B. For very serious mould outbreaks, it is recommended you seek advice from a mycologist prior to accessing the collections. People with respiratory conditions should not be involved in any mould clean up.

Online resources:

If you have trouble accessing any of the links above, please let us know and we will get the information to you in another format.

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Mould, mould everywhere !!!

Lately mould had been very much on my mind. Everywhere I go; there it is on leather objects, paper documents, photographic material, textiles, wooden furniture…  I am haunted. So I am compelled to use my blog turn to encourage you all to be vigilant and regularly check your collections especially after periods of heavy rain and high humidity. Ideally this should be part of a wider Integrated Pest Management program.  A small isolated outbreak is much easier to deal with than a large one.

Box brownie camera with active mould affecting leather surface.

Box brownie camera with active mould affecting leather surface.

Mould (the common term for fungal growth) can cause major, irreparable damage to a wide range of organic materials found in heritage collections. Staining and structural weakness is the most common form of damage.

When fungal spores are in a conducive environment, they will germinate and spread. What constitutes a suitable environment varies for each species. Many of the species affecting cultural heritage materials require moisture (e.g. water damage and/or high humidity above 65%), stagnant air pockets and surface dirt. It is very important to minimise the risk by maintaining relative humidity around 50-55%, ensuring good air movement and keeping collections and storage and display areas scrupulously clean. This will also reduce the risk of insect activity.

If you find fungal activity in your collection, take care. Some species can cause major health problems particularly for people who suffer from respiratory conditions and allergies.  Avoid the area if you think you’re at risk.

Wool uniform displaying active mould

Wool uniform displaying active mould

For small outbreaks, wear appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). At a minimum, you will need a P2 respirator mask (the kind with the filter valve on the front of the mask), nitrile gloves and enclosed safety googles. Listed below are a number of websites providing advice on how to deal with outbreaks. If you are unsure what to do, seek advice from a conservator or your MDO.

If the outbreak is large, I would strongly recommend quarantining the room and collections and seek assistance from a mycologist.

A few useful links:

National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/Museum/publications/conserveogram/03-04.pdf

State Library of Queensland: http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/128982/Caring-for-your-collections-Dealing-with-mould.pdf

Canadian Conservation Institute: http://www.cci-icc.gc.ca/resources-ressources/carepreventivecons-soinsconspreventive/mould-moisissures-eng.aspx

Conservation Centre for Art and Historic Artifacts: http://www.museumtextiles.com/uploads/7/8/9/0/7890082/managing_a_mold_invasion.pdf

Lydia Egunnike, Museum Development Officer, Southern Inland Queensland.