by Helen Martin
In July, a report in Stuff online and Nor-west News notified the public that Helensville Museum was closed for a month because its collection is endangered by a recent escalation of borer and other pests threatening the collection of artifacts in its four heritage buildings.
Given that the Museum’s mission is “To promote, understand, and preserve the history and heritage of the district, and its intrinsic values” this was alarming news to those entrusted with the care of its thousands of precious taonga. As vice-president Leigh Bosch explains, “We are not the owners, we are the kaitiaki, the caretakers, and it’s our job to look after the buildings and everything in them for the community. If we don’t deal with this now, it’s going to get worse.” Committee member Robyn Stewart agrees. “As well as borer affecting timber objects, we’re losing textiles to fabric moth and paper and photographic archives to silverfish. Most of our artifacts have been impacted.”
Once the extent of the threat was realised, Leigh and Robyn moved quickly into action, beginning by researching best practice. Preservation of museum collections is a global issue and there is a wealth of online information on the topic. The material provided by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, makes for very useful reading. They have also contacted several museums directly, including in England, America and Australia. “What we’re up against is small fry compared to what they have to do.” says Leigh.
The material of the artifact determines its treatment. Robyn has been to Warkworth Museum to learn the correct way to store textiles and the buildings are being fumigated. Current thinking is that the old way of controlling borer using kerosene is not ideal, because, while it slows adults down, it doesn’t penetrate through to the eggs. Freezing is the way to go. Hours spent on the phone looking for a refrigerated container resulted in Royal Wolf providing one at a much-needed 40% discount and Linton Ivicevich from Truck and Crane in Stewart Street, Helensville, offered to pick it up and return it free, a further big saving. Leigh and Robyn put together shelves for the container and Dave Swale generously offered to house it in his yard over the road, putting down gravel to keep it clear of puddles. The container’s position impacts the Kaipara Classic Car Club, whose 3-phase power is being used, and Rodney Meat Processors, whose space is also being encroached, but both businesses are happy to contribute.
Sound wooden artifacts and furniture are being packed in acid-free tissue and polythene, sealed with tape, then frozen in the container, with the temperature gradually reduced to -28 degrees. Objects already splitting must be treated individually by hand with a pesticide, as freezing would split them further. Because framed photographs can’t be frozen, they also must be individually hand-treated. “It’s a juggling act,” says Robyn. “We trying to be environmentally friendly and take minimal risk with the pesticide while making sure the pests are killed.”
Having seen the Stuff article, Auckland Museum’s Collection Care Department sent professional conservationists Siren Deluxe and Georgia Miller to offer invaluable help in the form of both storage containers and advice. “Our job is preventive conservation of a collection of 4.5 million objects at Auckland Museum and we have a lot of experience in pest management and environmental control, all those factors that make things slowly degrade,” Siren explained. “We can demonstrate ways to mitigate problems like borer, mould, silverfish and rodents, all of which are a problem here. We’re going to help particularly with the textiles and monitoring.”
Siren pointed out that, while the old buildings are difficult to control, the archive room is a real asset because it can be controlled. “She and Georgia told us we’re doing everything right to bring the situation under control was. They’ve provided an ongoing Pest Management Plan for us and will continue to support us in any way they can,” says Leigh.
Ongoing support from Auckland Museum will be provided.
Textile experts Tracey Wedge and Mary Stevens came from Matakohe Kauri Museum to help remove fragile garments from mannequins and demonstrate how to best store and care for them. They also helped with correctly identifying and dating the garments. They will also be providing ongoing assistance where required.
“Due to advice from Matakohe and Auckland museums we are having to freeze a lot more than we had anticipated. We also have to give the museum a thorough scrub down - the bugs thrive on each other and, of course, we can’t monitor new issues unless we are completely clean to start with. We’re going to need people to help us clean,” Leigh explains.
It’s a time-consuming business - wrapping a single desk takes half an hour- and Leigh and Robyn would dearly like more community help. Anything individuals or organisations can offer in terms of donations and/or support will be gratefully received. You can join the committee as a permanent or ex-officio committee member. You can donate through the givealittle page (https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/help-save-helensville-museum). If you want to help out (short-term or long-term) in any other way you can contact Leigh directly through the Helensville Museum Facebook page or through Leigh’s museum email firstname.lastname@example.org.
After all, if the Helensville Museum tagline “Our past is our future” is to be believed, we all need to contribute in any way we can to make sure our taonga are preserved for future generations.