Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Book Review - Pest Management in Museums, Archives and Historic Houses

First published in 2001 and reprinted in 2004, David Pinniger's Pest Management in Museums, Archives and Historic Houses is a great resource for people who are responsible for pest management in their institutions. Written in the UK, not all of the common North American pests are included, but the advice and information in this book is still invaluable, especially when you consider climate change and how new pests are arriving on our shores.

The introduction makes special mention of the illustrations that were commissioned for this book. I confess, I sort of rolled my eyes over those statements. But once you get into the actual book you quickly realize just how amazing and immensely helpful the illustrations are. When you're trying to figure out what kind of bug has made the museum its new home, you've got to be able to identify it. The level of detail in the magnified and actual size illustrations is fantastic. Sorry I rolled my eyes. I was wrong.

The lessons on just how quickly pests can multiply are covered in each pest profile. Information about their life cycle, how they look and act at each stage, favourite environments and foods are important for museum workers to be aware of, and are covered in good detail. 

In addition to all the identification information, Pinniger gives very sound advice on how to monitor for signs of pests. He outlines types of artifacts and materials that are particularly susceptible (ie yummy or cozy) for pests, and so require more frequent monitoring. Gaps between walls and floors, blocked fireplaces or unused chimneys, and old/discarded display materials are all prime targets for pests. He talks about exhibit case design and how you can make some slight tweaks to displays that will let you more readily notice problems like frass or casings. He is also a realist, acknowledging that when we have so much on the go, it can be easy to delay an inspection or cleaning, thinking that it won't make a difference. Unfortunately, this can have a cascading effect and end up aiding the pests in their infestation schemes.

Pinniger encourages museums to not put off cleaning or inspections, saying that "the investment of time and effort in creating a clean, pest-free environment will immediately benefit the care and conservation of objects." He also reminds of the importance to keep the temperature and relative humidity low and try to limit variations. Generally speaking, pests want it to be warm and humid. I know that as "Canada's Ocean Playground" it can be very hard to maintain low RH levels, but that doesn't mean we can't try.

In terms of prevention, Pinniger cautions how sneaky pests can be, and how important it is to isolate new objects before they are really introduced into the museum. This reminded me of a museum director who told me that she would notice if something was problematic so they don't worry about isolating new acquisitions. The truth is, you can't always see the signs. You need to assume the worst of each item as a precaution. He also gives advice on where and how to set traps, and what kind of traps work best for different kinds of pests. He even considers which options are more humane than others.

He also preaches the importance of documentation. When new acquisitions come in, where are they isolated? For how long? Where did you put the traps? How often do you check them? What are the results? If you catch pests in the traps, are they adults or larvae? Who is responsible for doing inspections, checking traps, changing traps, etc? If someone notices a problem, who do they notify? Does the museum have a contract with a local pest management company? All of this needs to be written down and readily available to staff and volunteers.

While it may appear that this book is all about bugs, there is a nice 'bonus' section on rodents. In discussing prevention techniques, the author outlines a goal of making "the museum environment as inhospitable as possible for rodents." He then outlines a variety of simple things that anyone can do to make sure rodents don't see the museum as a potential home. Most of the list relates to good hygiene/cleaning practices and regular inspections. Again a lot of it seems like common sense, but should still be documented in policies and procedures so that new volunteers and staff won't inadvertently invite rodents by leaving food on counters, not taking out the garbage as often as they should be, or letting tree branches grow too close to the roof.

One statement that really jumped out at me is about succession planning. What does that have to do with pest management? Pinniger warns that "continuity is essential and the loss of staff who have not kept records can lead to complete failure of the pest strategy and all the effort which has been previously expended." How true is that? Not to mention applicable to all areas of museum work. If you don't document things adequately, be it the collection, incidents, procedures, or whatever else, it will be really difficult for someone new to walk in and keep the museum moving forward.