History Is Slipping Away as Collections Deteriorate, Report Says

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Conservation advocates say there are millions of items in American public collections that may be lost unless they receive urgent preservation attention. In a study to be released on Tuesday in New York, Heritage Preservation, a Washington-based conservation group, reports that many such collections are threatened by poor environmental controls, improper storage, inadequate staffing and financing and poor planning for emergencies like floods.

The report includes data from more than 3,000 institutions, among them museums, historical societies, government archives, libraries, scientific organizations and universities.

"There is not the luxury of time with many of these collections," said Kristen Laise, the director of the research project. "All it takes is a few bad decisions, a flood or other emergency, a low funding period, and the damage can be irreparable."

Environmental hazards pose the greatest threat to collections, the report says. Inconsistent temperatures and high humidity can lead to mold, warping, severe drying and general deterioration. Ultraviolet rays in buildings with poor controls cause documents and textiles to fade, and pollutants in the air can cause harmful chemical reactions.

Even large institutions with staff conservators face challenges. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the hides of the museum's celebrated African elephants are deteriorating from unstable climate controls. Conservators spent more than a year evaluating the hall in which they are displayed and are now working on stabilizing conditions there.

Some well-intentioned preservation efforts of the past are in desperate need of updating, the report says. A 200-page book containing Boston town records from 1634 to 1660 was treated in the 1930's with cellulose acetate, considered the best protection against mold at that time. Conservators have since discovered that cellulose acetate breaks down over time, producing a vinegarlike odor. Without updated preservation, the book now "smells just like a Greek salad," said John McColgan, deputy archivist for the City of Boston. After consulting the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass., the city determined that it would need to raise $10,000 to restore the volume, he said.

Beyond lacking proper storage environments and conservation care, 80 percent of institutions have no plan for protecting their collections in an emergency. In one case detailed in the report, about 1,400 boxes of archaeological artifacts at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, N.M., were soaked when a ruptured hot water pipe at an off-site storage center flowed undetected for nearly 24 hours last year.

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