Museum FAQ: Food

Guests often ask, “Why can’t I bring snacks into the museum?” Many think it is because the museum wants to sell more at their snack bar or restaurant, but the real answer has much more to do with object preservation than you may realize. As any restaurant employee, caterer, or home chef can tell you, food is messy. Crumbs and spills are inevitable and, even if they don’t directly touch any artifacts, can have a massive impact on object care. The smallest crumb, food wrapper, or sugary residue from a spill can attract pests.  Vermin and insects can cause large-scale damage to a museum’s collection in very little time.

Why are pests such a big concern?

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This image is Image Number 1233096 at Forestry Images, a source for forest health, natural resources and silviculture images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service.

Pests enter buildings in search of food, shelter, and good places to reproduce. Different types of pests are looking for different types of food. Some are interested in food waste from spills and trash containers while others prefer to feast on things like paper, cloth, leather, or wood. These pests are particularly dangerous to the historical artifacts stored in museums. Other pests, like spiders, have no interest in those types of products but instead feast on other insects drawn to the food in the area. In museums the feeding habits of pests like clothes moths, odd beetles, and silverfish are cause for great concern. The photo at the right shows some of the damage clothes moths can cause.

When pests aren’t eating, they are finding places to hide and reproduce. In the case of vermin like rats and mice, this usually causes them to create holes and gather nesting material. The construction of these nests can be quite damaging but, the nesting material and waste from the animal also attracts other types of pests. Insect pests often chose to lay their eggs in existing materials, like the nooks and crannies of corrugated cardboard boxes, or inside the fibers of the carpet. All pests are typically quick to reproduce, and populations can quickly grow out of control.

How do museums stop pests from destroying the collections?

Museum professionals use a system called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, to help monitor and control pest populations. This system focuses on the prevention of pests. The idea is that museums want to keep as many pests out of the building as possible by being very careful what types of items can be brought inside. When food and plants are allowed inside a museum, for instance during weddings and events, museums have to develop guidelines to ensure that the items are brought in pest-free, the trash is disposed of quickly and all items are removed promptly after the event.

Museums are also very careful to inspect items coming into collections storage areas to make sure they aren’t already infested. In addition to inspecting items, some museum also have specialized quarantine and treatment areas to eliminate any pests that might be hiding. These treatments can include freezing or placing items in a CO2 environment.

IMG_0429The next part of IPM is monitoring for pests. Museums use a variety of traps to catch pests inside the museum, like the one shown at the left. These traps don’t work to eliminate all the pests in the building but, help us to identify what types of pests we have and can let us know when their populations start to rise. By tracking this information museums are able to stop many pests problems before they develop into an infestation.

Museums use poisons only as a last resort when dealing with pests, rather than as a preventative measure. The materials used to treat for pests by commercial pest services are not specifically tested for use around museum objects and applying them to artifacts could cause more damage than they prevent. Pest traps can help to identify specific items or smaller areas of a museum that need treatment, before the pests spread. If the problem can be narrowed down enough, the item many be able to be treated without using any chemicals.

Learn more about museum pests and IPM….

Harmon, James D. Integrated Pest Management in Museum, Library, and Archival Facilities: A Step by Step Approach for the Design, Development, Implementation, & Maintenance of an Integrated Pest Management Program. [Indianapolis, Ind.] (P.O. Box 40262, Indianapolis 46240): Harmon Preservation Pest Management, 1993.

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute

National Park Service

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