The Bug Catchers

Hello! It’s Stacey, the paper conservation fellow at the Amon Carter, here to give you more insight into what a conservator does.

I have recently learned that my sister has been going around describing my job as similar to that of Diane Kruger’s character in the Disney film National Treasure. Naturally, I decided not to correct her. I rather like the idea of myself finding clues on precious artifacts, discovering treasure, and outsmarting the bad guys. I will, however, draw the line at dripping lemon juice all over works on paper! But really, conservation is awesome, and it’s nice that my sister views it in such an adventurous light. Unfortunately, I’m going to burst that bubble right now and show you a part of our job that is far from glamorous: pest management.

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In National Treasure, Diane Kruger plays Dr. Abigail Chase, an archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC

Pest management is essential in a museum because pests can cause serious damage to works of art. As you probably know from your own experience, it’s impossible to keep your house (or in our case, building) completely free of them. Because of this, we do our best to monitor the “ecosystem” inside the Amon Carter. This involves the placement of insect traps around the building to allow us to identify which bugs are getting in, to know how many there are, to better understand their distribution patterns, to recognize trends, and to preempt any risk of infestation. So, every month I push my little cart around the museum, armed with garbage bags and a handy notebook, leaving no corner in the museum unexamined. In each of these locations, I observe and record my findings and take appropriate action when needed.

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Here I am inspecting one of the tent traps placed around the museum.

There are some insects that we keep an increased look out for based on the nature of our collection (photographs, works on paper, and paintings); these include silverfish, powder-post beetles, and cockroaches.

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These reference cards help us identify insects; they were created by museumpests.net and given to us by Mary Baughman, Book Conservator at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.

We also have strict measures to monitor artworks that enter and exit the museum. Each item is quarantined and thoroughly examined to make sure no insects are present before it can join the rest of the artwork in the museum.

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Magnified image of a dead carpet beetle found in an artwork entering the museum.

Live pests are every conservator’s nightmare. If such situations occur, the offending object is immediately isolated, double-bagged, and put in a freezer (less than 20°F) for as long as required to eradicate the pests (including their eggs). Dead insects also present a risk, acting as food for other pests. In such instances, the artwork is isolated and cleaned using suction. It is then monitored to ensure no other insect activity unfolds--eggs may be present after all! Once we are satisfied no further risk exists, the work is allowed to join the collection.

So there you have it, a small (and perhaps less glamorous!) part of a conservator’s day-to-day job in a museum. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at stacey.kelly@cartermuseum.org.