Enemies of museum collections


Besides the common enemies of museum collections like light, humidity and fire, parasites (insect feces, moths, weevils, bedbugs, beetles, termites) and airborne pollutants (dust, gases, etc.) are the most unwanted museum residents. Usually, they hitch a ride on human visitors.

Dust is both an irritating intruder and a fruitful protagonist to unveil hidden and buried histories of museum collections. Airborne pollutants mingle with pollen, human hairs and textile fibers, the animal skin cells, the coal dust and minuscule road debris which gathers on surfaces and artfecats. They build an archive of past and present touches. The same applies to parasites. They not only eat through artifacts like taxidermies, but they also leave droppings, shed skins, and move to other museums through traveling exhibitions. These invisible troublemakers are rarely the protagonists of the history of museum’s and still, there are more and more (artistic) interventions to make the invisible visible. For instance, the Musée du quai Branly in Paris uses a sound installation to amplify the sound of wood-eating fleas. It maps the insect populations which entered as blind passengers the musical instrument collection. They jumped from visitor clothes to the musical instruments where they enjoy their ancient meal. In this case, humans are a threat to objects. They are the parasites.

Nevertheless, several techniques of abjection are implemented in cultural institutions to preserve ‘nature’ and maintain the evolution which has man at its peak.

Techniques of abjection

The term abjection means ‘the state of being cast off’. The abject is a complex psychological, philosophical and linguistic concept developed by Julia Kristeva in her 1980 book Powers of Horror. Kristeva herself commented: ‘refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’. In practice, the abject covers all the bodily functions, or aspects of the body, that are deemed impure or inappropriate for public display or discussion. In terms of museums, the above mentioned bodies of abject are being monitored and killed by an in-house pest control management. For instance, museums use pheromones to attract culprits, build traps or spray insecticide to prevent termites from making chitin, the main component of their exoskeletons. Without the protective shield, they die.

Techniques of care

The problem with these techniques of abjection is that they devalue living beings which are crucial for our environment. Termites for instance are keystone organisms because they can unlock the vast amounts of energy stored in the woody fibers of plants. By doing so, termites help to support other species and create multiple habitats for them. Only through the movement of humans they could have spread around the world. These entangled stories have to be made visible and spread inside museum collections to construct the link between cultural symbols (heritage, preservation) and environmental significance (fungi, parasite etc.).