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Columbia's curators protect historical treasures

Various methods are used to protect against fire, smoke and water damage

Jeremy Jardin

September 29, 2011 | 7:09 p.m. CST

On the morning of Sept. 10, Jeffrey Wilcox received an urgent phone call from the State Historical Society of Missouri. A fire in MU’s Ellis Library that morning had set off sprinklers, which caused water damage to some historical documents, and the library needed to borrow blotting paper to recover them. As curator of collections at MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology, Wilcox knows the tricks of the trade when it comes to protecting, preserving and restoring historical treasures.

Fortunately, the library’s carpet sustained most of the damage, but a number of manuscripts and microfilm reels were ruined.

The fire at Ellis Library was an event that even the most prepared librarians and archivists couldn’t have planned for. However, because of the inherent value and historical importance attached to libraries, in addition to museums and special collections, curators and caretakers try to leave nothing to chance.

None of the artwork in any of the Museum of Art and Archaeology’s five different galleries has suffered any fire or water damage. The museum’s decision to skip sprinklers in the galleries could have something to do with this, or it could just be the curators’ confidence in their disaster emergency plan.

The plan includes sandbags and other supplies in case a catastrophe strikes, like when a pipe burst decades ago. The museum curators also have contacts at the St. Louis Art Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City that they can call at any hour of the day or night to get advice on how to save paintings that have water damage.

The museum is not the only sprinkler-free location on MU’s campus. Special Collections and Rare Books on the fourth floor of Ellis Library is also more willing to risk a fire than chance a sprinkler malfunctioning and soaking the collection. For items such as the prized page from the Gutenberg Bible, the curators prefer threats that can be quickly extinguished.

In addition to the smoke sensory system, Special Collections and Rare Books has a walk-in vault that stores the collections’ most valuable items. The vault serves the dual purposes of security and temperature and humidity control. Old, delicate and rare items are placed in the vault at the perfect temperature — approximately 70 degrees. “It’s very precise, and when the temperature or humidity strays from the very narrow parameters, the alarm goes off,” University Archivist and Director Michael Holland explains. “If someone has the door open for too long, and too much moisture gets in, then the alarm goes off.”

Elinor Barrett, associate director of the Columbia Public Library, says they can’t do much to control water damage except to hope there’s never a fire. If books were to be damaged by water, the Columbia Public Library would use the same system Ellis is currently using to attempt to save them: freezing and thawing to prevent molding and inserting dry blotting sheets in between pages to absorb the moisture. According to Barrett, this is a standard procedure in most libraries.

Dr. Laurel Wilson is the curator of the Missouri Historic Costume and Textile Collection in MU’s Gwynn Hall, which consists of more than 5,000 pieces from several periods. All pieces are kept in acid-free boxes on padded hangers and, so far, none of them have sustained damage.

Wilson says the main problem in preserving the collection is overcrowding, but plans to increase storage space for the collections are set for spring of 2013.

Regardless of an individual piece’s value, Wilson considers each one of equal importance to the collection. “Everything is essentially treated the same,” she says. “We consider everything from the most simple garment to the very best garment to be equally as important because they tell the history of the time and the person and place.”

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