What’s eating our collection?

While we hope our collections provide food for thought, we never want them to be actual food! Our collections volunteer, Tony Bucknall, works hard to keep our precious archive material pest- and insect-free, playing a vital role in the conservation of Winterbourne and Birmingham history for years to come. But what does this aspect of conservation involve? Tony gives us the lowdown.  

Before joining Winterbourne in 2013, I was a conservation volunteer at several National Trust properties and was involved in quarterly checks for insects that may cause damage to the collections. English Heritage published a flyer that identifies common pests with a photograph of each species, which is extremely useful for identifying potential threats. When I joined Winterbourne there were no detailed monitoring plans in place, and I was given the opportunity to design a plan from scratch.

The simplest way of identifying a potential insect threat was by using a triangular insect trap that has a sticky substance on the base, which captures any insect walking across it. You will see these dotted around the house in high-risk areas. The next step was to decide upon the location for these insect traps and experience has shown that the most common areas for insects were by the skirting boards on outside walls or by radiators. Fireplaces were also a popular location, along with bookcases, which are vulnerable due to the potential for silverfish and bookworm damage. Furthermore, curtains can attract textile-damaging moths and insects.

Tony at work.
Tony at work

Therefore, using a plan of each floor of the house, insect traps were installed in the above locations, plus a few other random places to identify potential insect issues. Each trap was numbered, and its location recorded on the plan, so we knew where the insects were found. We started with 39 traps around the house.

Then, after a few months, the traps were collected, and the results recorded on a spreadsheet so we could evidence the robustness of the monitoring. We found that under radiators and outside walls were the house’s main problem areas; there was no evidence of insects in bookcases, fireplaces, or other random locations selected.

Currently, there are only 11 traps in the house that were open in 2014 – and the locations have now expanded to include exhibition spaces and the Winterbourne Collections Centre, with 27 traps now in use. The most common insects on the ‘watch list’ are silverfish, which leave a slime trail wherever they go and damage paper, especially books, as a result. There are also a population of woodlice, so we are always wary of displaying paper products in the open on outside walls. We do, of course, catch harmless creatures too. Spiders get stuck in our traps, but they do no damage; in fact, they’re very welcome as they eat some of the insects that do cause us problems!

Some harmless beetles and centipedes
Some harmless beetles and centipedes

The next time you see me with a basket of insect traps, I will be doing the quarterly insect trap review to see how many unwelcome visitors we have. For now, I’m happy to say that we’re keeping all the pests at bay.