Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

The mold was on many different materials of the long weapons: bone, ivory, feather, wood, leather

During Crista Pack’s 2011 summer project at the Alaska State Museum, she found several artifacts with a strange white mold-like substance on them.   Suspiciously, the items were all from the same 2003 accession, but not all the artifacts from that accession had the mold.  Baskets and other weapons were fine.  And incoming paperwork and photographs indicated there was no issue when they arrived.  None of the other artifacts in the drawer had the mold, just a few from this donation.  To deepen the mystery, I realized this was similar to a spot of strange white mold that had been previously found on a basket at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka.  We convinced ourselves through microscopy that in spite of proper storage and environmental conditions at both museums, indeed we DID seem to be seeing mold.  Yikes!  

This speck of similar-looking mold had been seen earlier on a basket in our museum collection, but in a different city! The long weapons and basket had never been in the same town.

Careful examination of both the Alaska State Museum and Sheldon Jackson Museum collections failed to turn up any further examples.  Crista was determined to get to the bottom of it and pursued the question during her next semester of school at the University of Delaware/ Winterthur graduate training program in conservation.  Here is her excellent report on the matter:

Mold Growth and Prevention in Museum Environments_Research Paper

After receiving the report, I emailed her a few more questions, and here were her responses:

Ellen: We’ve definitely got mold, maybe a couple different kinds mixed together but some of that possibly due to contamination on the way?

Crista: Yes – the fact that these were the only items in the drawer affected makes me think that these spores came in on the artifacts.  Especially if these have just been hanging out in the drawer for the past 6 years. If they’d been on display for any length of time, then that might be a different story. Either way, the molds that were identified are all very typical molds found on things in interior spaces.

Ellen: So, RH alone isn’t the culprit for mold growth, although we tend to focus on it.  Temp, nutrients, water content, mold type also matter.

Crista: Yup – RH is much easier to measure than water content, so people tend to focus on it more.  Most interesting I thought was that mold does not appear to take water from the air…it takes it through the substrate. So RH will impact the water content of an object…but that is going to vary according to different materials, other environmental factors, etc. etc.

Ellen: Let me get this right…we likely have mold because there were spores already there and the temperature and nutrient conditions were good and the mold type is a kind that has some of its own moisture/ doesn’t need as much moisture to flourish? 

Crista: I think so…although I can’t confirm that the mold is specifically the type that doesn’t need as much moisture to flourish – I just wouldn’t rule it out. If it’s not, then the other combination of temp, nutrients and water content of the substrate (and/or dust in crevices) would be more at play. 

Basically, I’ve learned that mold is freakishly smart and resourceful…and it has an incredibly strong will to survive. And that regulating RH can help prevent it because water content plays an important role – BUT it is really hard to define a specific RH limit, because each and every situation is going to be unique. I think the current guidlines that most people seem to adopt of keeping spaces below 60% is probably good and prevents a lot of mold from growing…but it’s like birth control… it’s only effective 99% of the time (or so I’m told!).  And actually, the RH guidelines might not even be effective 99% of the time…I’d guess more like 92% of the time. 😉 That is my extremely scientific calculation that I’m giving you there..haha!

Under construction August 2011


Many kinds of feathers are used on Alaskan artifacts, particularly those of Native manufacture. Most commonly, feathers are seen as appendages on masks or as fletching on hunting tools or weapons.


The most common white stuff we have seen on Alaskan feathers is insect debris (such as cocoons and frass) or mold. This is most often seen in association with feather damage consistent with insects eating the feathers. Pesticides are also a possibility. The Alaska State Museum has hundreds of taxidermy bird mounts that have tested positive for arsenic.  Some of these mounts may close to 100 years old.  Most bird mounts added to the collection since 1970 were preserved with a freeze-drying technique, but these are at risk for insect infestation.

One mysterious case of “white stuff” involves a hunting tool that displays a sticky, branched fibrous-looking mold. The item came into the collection in 2003 in excellent condition, displaying no mold or “white stuff”. The mold appears irregularly on feather fletching, string lashing, leather lashing, bone, ivory and wood parts. Could it be growing from some sort of coating that was sprayed on the artifact?  The most perplexing part of this mystery is that the artifact has been in a controlled collections storage room inside a cabinet with temperature and relative humidity well below what would be expected to support mold growth. We hope to work with intern Crista Pack when she returns to the University of Delaware to investigate the cause of this peculiar “white stuff.”



Under Construction, August 2011


Shells can refer to various types of hard protective coverings composed primarily of calcium carbonate and comprise the exoskeletons of invertebrates, the outer layer of an egg or other similar specimens commonly found in natural history collections.


The most common cause of white stuff on shell is Byne’s Disease. Is it contagious?? No, Byne’s is not a transmissible or infectious disease and cannot be spread to you or throughout your collection. What it can do is alert you to improper storage conditions.

Byne’s is a chemical reaction that causes the physical breakdown of calcareous (containing calcium carbonate) materials. The phenomenon is named after Loftus St. George Byne, a 19th century British amateur naturalist who described the finding of this condition in shell collections. He mistakenly assumed the condition was caused by some type of bacteria. Subsequent research in the field revealed that the condition was actually due to chemical reactions taking place at the shell surface. Nonetheless, the term Byne’s “disease” stuck and is still in use.

When the calcium carbonate in shells comes into contact with acidic vapors, salts can crystalize on or erupt through the surface of the shell. Acidic vapors can off-gas from certain storage materials – particularly wood-based and certain plastic products. These kinds of materials can produce acetic acid and formic acid gases, which are then dissolved in atmospheric water and combine with calcium carbonate to form calcium acetate and calcium formate salts. Higher humidity creates more atmospheric water and will accelerate the reaction.

The reaction will destroy the surface of the shell and cannot be reversed. However, changing the environmental and storage conditions can stop the reaction from occurring and prevent further loss.

The overall appearance on the surface of a shell may look very similar to mold. It is described as initially appearing as white, rough, chalky, or fuzzy in patches; perhaps with streaks or spots. These are easiest to see on dark and smooth shell surfaces. Though it may look mold-like, microscopic examination will show a structure that looks distinctly crystalline and mineral – not biological. A vinegary smell in the storage area is another clue. Acetic acid (formed when wood breaks down) is also the main component of vinegar and it’s smell indicates the presence of this vapor and the potential for Byne’s “disease.”

At the Alaska State Museum, we tried an experiment to force Byne’s Disease with little success. We gathered mussel, clam, and scallop shell from the beach, cleaned them, and exposed them to fresh oak sawdust. We tried this enclosed at room temperature, in a lab oven, and even added moisture to accelerate the reaction, but after 8 weeks we did not have drastic crystal formation.  This suggested to us that Byne’s disease formation may take a long period of poor storage. One shell, however, did grow a nice mold sample at high humidity!


National Park Service. (2008) “Byne’s “Disease:” How To Recognize, Handle And Store Affected Shells and Related Collections.” Conserve O Gram. August 2008, Number 11/15.

Crista Pack’s notes: Conserve O Grams provide a great model for how to write a concise, informative article that is useful to conservators and non-conservators alike. Topics covered include history, causes, problematic materials, identification, cleaning, and prevention.  “Byne’s disease” can occur in any natural history specimen composed of, or including calcium carbonate. This includes …limestone-based rocks and fossils.” Includes a great Table listing damaging materials that have been used in museum. “Health and Safety Warning: Calcium acetate and calcium formate…are not the same as common table salt (sodium chloride). NEVER taste these salts, even though you may see this recommended in older literature.”  The salt crystals are water-soluble and may be removed with a brief soak or gentle brushing under running water.  Alcohol, boiling, freezing or microwaving, are NOT recommended.  If storage environment is not altered, the process will start again.

Tennent, Norman H. and Thomas Baird. (1985) “The Deterioration of Mollusca Collections: Identification of Shell Efflorescence.” Studies in Conservation Vol.  30 pp.73-85.

Crista Pack’s notes:  Begins by providing definitions for efflorescence, the methods that have been used to analyze them (XRD, IR, TGA and NMR spectroscopy), and provides the chemical formulas for different components.  The authors also discuss the cause of efflorescence formed on shell from exposure to acetic and formic acids (from wood cabinets). Gives a really good overview of methods used for analysis and descriptions for how the efflorescence forms on different types of shells (patterns, similarities between different shells, natural protective coatings that inhibit growth in some areas, etc.).  Provides some interesting discussion on how NaCl (salt) enhances growth – salt from ocean or salt from washing/boiling shells in salt water which was occasionally done. Page 76 contains excellent images of examples. There is a large section dedicated to the technical analysis studies and the data that was acquired from them. This was a little too in-depth for the scope of this project, but would be useful for anyone with access to this kind of analytical equipment and would like a comparison. The conservation section was short, but touches on the pros and cons of cleaning off efflorescence. More could have been said about the potential damage that could occur from removing efflorescence , as well as something – even just a short statement – about ethics of removing original material. Also gives a short statement about the need for safe materials to be used in the storage of artifacts and refers readers to Blackshaw and Daniel’s article “Selecting Safe Materials for use in the display and storage of antiquities.”  Another method for preservation given is coating the shell, however the article unfortunately fails to mention what shells can be coated with.

Wikipedia. “Byne’s disease.” Online:’s_disease. Accessed June 29, 2011; last modified on 14 November 2010 at 03:52.

Crista Pack’s notes: While all Wikipedia articles have to be taken with a grain of salt, this one is particularly good in its depth of coverage on the topic and easy-to-understand explanation of the deterioration. It also contains a good list of references with links to pdf articles and a number of good images.


Under Construction, August 2011


Alaska Native and non-Native cultures have made extensive use of mammal fur for all manner of clothing, gear, and artwork. And one can hardly enter a museum, airport, or mall anywhere in Alaska without encountering stuffed mounts of iconic Alaskan animals. The website for the Alaska Fur ID Project includes information about the mammals most often used on artifacts in Alaskan collections.


The most common white stuff we have seen on Alaskan taxidermy is arsenic.  Arsenic is one of the more common pesticides found as residue on many types of objects. According to the National Park Service, arsenic compounds were frequently applied during the 18th – 20th centuries in the form of soap mixtures and sprays to preserve biological specimens and ethnographic objects (Conserve O Gram 2/3 2000,1). To identify arsenic, the National Park Service recommends to

“Look for powdery or crystalline deposits at the base of feathers and hairs, around eyes, in or at the base of ears, around mouth or bill, along ventral incision, at base of tail, and on foot pads. On ethnographic objects, inspect crevices and seams where arsenic may have collected. Even if deposits are not evident, all natural history specimens collected and prepared before the 1980s should be tested for the presence of arsenic.” (Conserve O Gram 2/3 2000, 2)

On fur, the most common white materials are associated with insects. Frass, webbing, cocoons, bug parts, shed larval skins and the like are often found in association with hair loss and even holes chewed through the hide. Occasionally there will be small widely spaced hard blobs adhered to the shaft of the hair down toward the skin, and I have been led to believe that those accretions are more likely from bugs that were bothering the furry creature while it was alive.  You may also see adhesives associated with tear repair from the skin side, such as BEVA 371 film and Reemay (a spun bonded synthetic fabric that is thin and web-like).


_____(2010) “Appendix: Common Museum Pesticides” Pesticide Mitigation in Museum Collections: Science in Conservation: Proceedings from the MCI Workshop Series Smithsonian Contributions to Museum Conservation. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press Editor: Charola, A. Elena;Koestoer, Robert J. pp. 71-72

National Park Service’s Conserve O Gram on arsenic:


Under Construction, August 2011


A huge range of wooden artifacts are found in Alaskan collections. These range from waterlogged archaeological remains, to traditional Native feast dishes and tools, to picture frames, furniture and fine carvings.


The most common white stuff we have seen on Alaskan wooden artifacts are fatty bloom, dust, mold, paint spatters, polyethylene glycol treatment, insect debris (such as frass) and pesticides.


When seeing fuzzy white growth on an object, people’s initial assumption is often that it is a mold or mildew. But this is not always the case. Blooms can sometimes have a feathery or matted fibrous look similar to mold, but microscopic examination and solubility tests can confirm the presence (or absence) of bloom. White bloom resulting from fats, oils and waxes in wooden materials may be referred to in literature as ‘fatty bloom,’ ‘fat bloom,’ or ‘fatty spew (or spue). These terms all refer to the formation of crystals on the surface that form from fats or oils either applied to the surface or left as residues from use.

Bloom on wooden artifacts is caused by the application of fats and oils to the surface or from residues left behind from use. There are a number of hypotheses regarding the exact mechanism of the formation of these blooms. Some attribute it to free fatty acids that separate out and crystallize on the surface.(Ordonez and Twilley 1998, 3-4). Analysis by Scott R. Williams (1988, 65-84) found bloom on objects to be primarily composed of a variety of fatty acids including palmitic, stearic, myristic and dicarboxylic acids (such as azelaic). These were present individually or occasionally as mixtures; however palmitic and stearic were the most commonly found (Williams 1988, 68-69). In general, however, it is believed that temperature and humidity levels play important factors in the migration and crystallization process.

Bloom can have a variety of appearances depending on the storage conditions, fats present in or on the object, and the type of material the bloom is forming on. It can appear powdery, granular, or branch-like. This makes it easily confused with other types of white stuff that can be found on objects. Throughout our survey, the most common type of bloom found on wood artifacts had a very crystalline, almost sugary appearance to it. In some cases it had been partially rubbed off the surface. A wide variety of wooden trays, bowls, dippers, ladles and spoons traditionally made by Alaska Native cultures were used in connection with animal oils such as seal oil or eulachon oil. These dishes often, but not always, have a darkened surface from the oil as well.

An important note is that fat bloom is often primarily found on areas of an object exposed to air. For example, on a leather-bound book the spine of the book (if it faces outward) may have the heaviest bloom. In some instances, it has been found that items closer to an air conditioning vent had a higher occurrence of bloom (Gottlieb 1982, 37) indicating that air circulation, temperature, and humidity play an important role.


Mold is typically described as having a fuzzy, velvety, or sometimes slimy appearance. When viewed under a microscope, the vegetative part of mold (known as mycelium can be seen as thin, thread-like branching hyphae and is very distinctive from the crystalline structure of salts.  Mold growth generally begins to occur on organic materials when the environment is at 70% relative humidity or higher. The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) gives the following useful chart for mold growth on their “10 Agents of Deterioration” website

Pesticide Residue

Up until the late 20th century, the application of toxic pesticides to organic materials in museum collections was a widespread and accepted practice. Compounds made of arsenic or mercury were sometimes sprayed or dusted onto artifacts to prevent pest damage. DDT was also common as were moth balls comprised of dichlorobenzene or naphthalene. The carcinogenic and hazardous nature of these chemicals is now known and they are no longer used. However, the residues of past applications remain and they can sometimes show up as white residues that may be confused with other salt formations. On wood, pesticide residues may appear as a whitish, spotty haze over the surface of the object. When handling objects made of organic materials such as skin, it is always better to err on the side of caution and protect yourself from possible exposure to toxic chemicals. Wear protective gloves and a lab coat or apron. You may wish to wear a dust mask to prevent breathing in toxic dust.


Frass is the excrement passed by insects. It can be fine and powdery to grainy and pellet shaped in appearance. Frass often takes on the color of whatever substance has been eaten. In the case of light colored woods, if the frass is seen against a dark background, it can appear very light in color and might almost seem white or off-white. Yellow or beige may be more typical.  One type of wood boring beetle is the Anobiid, also known as a powderpost beetle. These insects can be found tunneling their way through wood objects and leave behind frass that looks like tiny, lemon-shaped pellets. They are light tan in color, but may look whitish against a dark background. These insects were responsible for an extensive infestation of the Sheldon Jackson Museum collection many decades ago. More information on the Anobiids can be found on the website:


Mold hyphae, image by Bob Blaylock

Erickson, Harvey. (1977) Preservation of Wood Artifacts. Seattle, WA: University of Washington College of Forest Resources, October 1977.

Crista Pack’s notes: A very dated publication that reflects the acceptance and use of pesticides such as arsenate and boric acid compounds and DDT. Useful for its historical context to understand what may have been applied (and how) to wooden artifacts at that time. Erickson also discusses some different types of species (and their frass) that had been identified as potentially damaging to wood collections.  The possible discoloration and efflorescence that may develop from application of the various pesticides is discussed; although the latter is not seen as a particular problem, but rather something that can simply “be largely removed by brushing and moist cloths.”

Geier, Katharina (2006) “A Technical Study of Arctic Pigments and Paint on Two 19th Century Yup’ik Masks.”  Journal of the American Institute for Conservation. Vol 45 No 1 Spring 2006.  Pp. 17-30

Ellen Carrlee’s notes: White pigments used on masks were identified as a mixture of clays, micas, and associated minerals, consistent with reportings in the ethnographic literature.

Ordonez, Eugenia and John Twilley, John.  (1998) “Clarifying the Haze: Efflorescence on Works of Art” WAAC Newsletter 20 (1) 1998 pp 12-17.

Pearlstein, Ellen. “Fatty Bloom on Wood Sculpture from Mali.” Studies in Conservation 31 (1986) 83-91.

Crista Pack’s notes: describes the blooms found on African wooden objects. Results show that the bloom was the result of ethnographic application of oils. Examination techniques used include melting point, solubility behavior and infrared spectroscopy. States that sampling technique involved removing surface material with a fresh scalpel blade into a well slide.  Provides a really good description of the bloom mechanism and polymorphism. Within conclusion, notes that “The surest way to eliminate the bloom entirely would be to remove all of the material causing it, which is neither simple on a porous wood sculpture, nor necessarily desirable if the material is a fat of ethnographic origin.” Also notes that the application of conservation waxes can interfere with identification and cause confusion because their chemical composition can be similar to fats. Gives really great technical data on the results of the fats analyzed, but these appear to be mainly of African origin. Oils in Alaskan wooden dishes are often of marine origin, including fish and marine mammals.

Williams, R. Scott. (1989) “Blooms, Blushes, Transferred Images and Mouldy Surfaces: What Are These Distracting Accretions on Art Works?”  In Proceedings of the 14th Annual IIC-CG Conference 1988.  Edited by Johanna G. Wellheiser. Ottawa. Pp. 65-84


Under Construction, August 2011


Many Alaska Native cultures have used bone, tooth, ivory and antler extensively in their tools, fishing and hunting gear, ornaments, and other items. Some of these materials may look similar if they come from an archaeological setting.  Marine mammals provided materials common to Alaska but not widely seen in many other places, such as whale vertebrae and walrus tusk ivory. Mammoth and mastodon ivory is also sometimes seen made into artifacts. Beware, material called “whalebone” is sometimes actually referring to baleen, the filtering mouth parts of certain whales.  This material looks a bit like black or brown plastic and was widely used as corset stays, for example. It is made of the protein keratin and is not actually bone at all.


The most common white stuff we have seen on Alaskan bone, tooth, ivory and antler is related to exhibition or repair, such as adhesives and putties. Burned bone, tooth, ivory or antler may be “calcined” or oxidized by heating which can cause a white powdery or crusty material. Sometimes, in the case of archaeological material for example, darker surfaces chip off or abrade away and reveal lighter white-looking areas below.  This is most commonly seen on antler from archaeological contexts. The walrus tusk container seen in the image below has “white stuff” in the incised lines of the carving. The records suggest the artifact came from an archaeological context on St Lawrence Island and was sold to the Museum by a resident many years ago. The white material may have been rubbed into the incised lines at that time to help highlight the design.


Johnson, Jessica S. “Consolidation of Archaeological Bone: A Conservation Perspective.”  Jourbal of Field Archaeology.  Vol. 21, 1994.

Ellen Carrlee’s notes: Explores consolidants used by conservators in the mid 1990’s (many of which are still used) to consolidate bone, including acrylic resins Acryloid B-72, water based acrylic colloidal dispersion Acrysol WS-24, water based acrylic emulsion such as Rhoplex AC-33, poly(vinyl) acetate resin such as AYAA or AYAF, poly(vinyl) butyral resin Butvar B-98.  Also describes consolidants that have been used in the past but are not now recommended, such as “white glue” polyvinyl acetate emulsion (Elmer’s Glue, Carpenter’s Glue), wax, shellac, cellulose nitrate (marketed as Duco or Ambroid), gum dammar, gum Arabic, polyethylene glycol (PEG or Carbowax), agar jelly, ethylhydrohyethycellulose, poly(vinyl) acetate emulsion (Vinamul or Gelva), poly(vinyl) acetate resin (Vinylite or Gelva), epoxy, cyanoacrylate “crazy glue” (marketed today as Paleobond, for example, and known to be used in Alaska). 

Koob, Stephen P. (1984) “The Consolidation of Archaeological Bone.”  Adhesives and Consolidants. Preprints of the Contributions to the IIC Paris Congress, 2-8 september 1984 London. pp. 98-102.


Under Construction August 2011


Most ceramics we see in Alaska have a porous structure that can allow water soluble salts from the ground or from seawater to penetrate. When the water dries, these salts can crystallize on the surface. If the item is glazed, the salts can cause the glaze to pop off the surface in small spalls because the glaze is made of glass and is not porous. Alaska Native cultures have few traditional ceramic technologies, with the major exception of a coarse, heavily tempered ceramic. Historical ceramics from the Russian period, through the gold rush and homesteading periods up to modern times are seen in Alaskan collections.


The most common white stuff we have seen on Alaskan ceramics tends to be salts from burial or contact with seawater. Adhesive residues are also common and are usually associated with the break edges. Adhesive residues from labels have also been seen. At the Alaska State Museum, we attempted to force salt crystal growth on ceramics. We gathered high-fired ceramic china from the beach site of the old Treadwell Mine dining hall on Douglas Island, but could not get any crystals to appear on that ceramic. At the same site, which is subjected to tidal action, we also buried a smashed contemporary terra cotta flowerpot for several days.  That pottery readily yielded nice crystal salt growth after only a short time in the lab oven. 


Harry, K.G. and L. Frink. (2009) “The Arctic Cooking Pot: Why Was it Adopted?” American Anthropologist 111(3):330-343.

Harry, K.G., L. Frink, B. O’Toole, and A. Charest. (2009) “How to Make an Unfired Clay Cooking Pot: Understanding the Technological Choices Made by Arctic Potters. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 16 pp.33-50.

Frink, L. and K. Harry. (2008) “The Beauty of “Ugly” Eskimo Cook Pots.” American Antiquity 73(1):103-120.

Paterakis, A.B. (1987) “The Deterioration of Ceramics by Soluble Salts and Methods for Monitoring their Removal.” In Recent Advances in the Conservation and Analysis of Artifacts.  Institute of Archaeology, Jubilee Conservation conference pp67-72.

Pearson, C. (1987) “Deterioration of Ceramic, Glass and Stone” Conservation of Marine Archaeological Objects.  Butterworths.  London.