Conservation and the Museum Collection

Natural history collection conservation has moved away from treating individual specimens and toward a holistic approach. We now study the underlying causes of deterioration and try to determine how to prevent damage through improving environmental conditions and reducing risks.

Ten agents of deterioration cause the damage we see in any natural or manufactured item. Different materials are more or less susceptible to each agent.

The collection in each scientific section has its own challenges and risks. Some are obvious, such as what insect pests might do to a Native American headdress or to a bird or mammal study skin. Other threats are less obvious. For example, one would think all mineral collections (including paleontological specimens) would not be affected by high humidity, temperature, or too much light, but some are. High humidity in conjunction with pollution increases chemical reactions within certain minerals—such as pyrite (an iron-based material). Under the right conditions this mineral disintegrates into a pile of dust. Too much heat causes some minerals, such as opal, to dry out and crack and causes others to change color. This damage is irreversible and can lead to total destruction of the object.