The 11th agent of deterioration

Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash


The 10 Agents of deterioration

Let's begin with the basic ten agents of deterioration. If you've never heard of them, here are a couple super quick and fun resources to get you up to speed:

If you are looking for more legit sources, here are a couple more:

The main point about the 10 agents of deterioration is that they are different ways in which collections are damaged either by natural or human forces/dynamics, accidental or intentional. As conservators or professionals who, in one way or another, work to care for various types of cultural heritage, we come to think of preventive conservation as all the measures we take to make sure these ten agents don't wreak havoc in our collections and sites.

So we take measures.

We put in leak detection systems, fire alarms, sprinklers, security cameras, nylon strings to stop earthquakes from breaking things, acid-free packaging, insect monitoring traps, UV filters, fancy databases and barcodes, digitisation programmes, 3D scanning projects, you name it! We do all this amazing work to make sure nothing happens to our collections, or at least to make sure that whatever happens happens very, very, very slowly.

And yet, I had a feeling we were forgetting a very important and all-encompassing one... What happens if all the work we do is useless because no one knows about it?

Pablo Escobar waiting meme. It says "Amazing preventive conservation programme" while lonely Pablo is "waiting for museum visitors."
Do you feel like this sometimes?

An 11th culprit: Obscurity

The closest agent to the one I am proposing to add would be Dissociation or Custodial neglect. However, this agent focuses on internal documentation, follow-up of processes during staff turnover and database or record-keeping problems. This is not what I mean.

A few months ago, I was asked how come, if I was a conservator, I knew stuff about social media marketing, basic design, SEO and Google analytics? So I had to put into words something that I had been thinking since I began working in 2016.

Public outreach and social media management is an integral part of preventive conservation. I consider it part of my job to make sure all the work I do means something to someone out there who would otherwise know nothing about my museum, our collections, our conservation work. I don't care if it's not in my job profile or description because, sometimes, I think it should be.

The thing is, even if you have the most amazing budget in the world for perfect, stable, carbon-neutral, insect-free storage spaces...

It won't count for much if nobody cares, and what happens when nobody cares? Your amazing budget will go away.

A lot of us, if not all of us, do magic and make do to have the best, creative, innovative solutions for all the things we need to do to keep our collections safe - but we don't always take that extra step to make sure that everyone knows about it.

It's like a vicious cycle. You don't have a budget, so you can't hire social media people or do super fancy things (or sometimes even basic things). People outside your institution, or even inside your institution, don't know what you're up to or why. A lot of outside people don't even know your building is there. So your budget (and your team) gets smaller and smaller and smaller - until you're gone.

And this brings us back to the 10 agents of deterioration. If you and your team are gone, what will happen to the collections then? Well, the main 10 agents of deterioration will make sure to destroy them - and then everyone will be all shock-horror and complain about why nothing was ever done before it got this bad and we will be cranky, old, jaded people saying it was a terrible deal and we couldn't save it, and it's everyone else's fault for not listening to us and cutting our budgets and/or firing us.

It's just a bad deal all around for everyone involved and it happens all over the world regardless of your kind or size of institution.

Statler and Waldorm meme asking, "Our collections are not on social media? "We have collections?"
Let's avoid becoming like Statler and Waldorf.

How do you know you are suffering from Obscurity?

When talking about your collections and/or institution, visitors say things like:

  • I didn't know you were here!
  • I live very close by and I had no idea!
  • How long have you been here?
  • Why have I never heard of you before?
  • Are you on social media? Where is it?

Well-meaninged colleagues might still say things like:

  • Oh? Why do you need to do that?
  • Why can't x take care of it?
  • I didn't know we had that in our collections!
  • That doesn't sound like a priority.
  • We could probably outsource conservation services just fine.

The thing with Agent 11: Obscurity, is that it does not only apply to the collections themselves (objects get forgotten all the time), but to the people who care for them - and affecting the people will inevitably affect the collections.

Why we need to highlight Obscurity

We must fight against being forgotten. Our collections don't deserve to be forgotten. Those of us who work to keep them should not be invisible.

Obscurity, as its name implies, is an agent that works furtively, clandestinely. It is similar to Neglect and Dissociation in that the effects of its damage on collections cannot be openly observed. Water damage, fire damage, fading, theft, insect attack - these are all things we can see and quantify.

Not so with Obscurity. How do you quantify how visible or invisible you are?

Obscurity is quietly chipping away at your collection's limelight, at your job security, at your institution's position within its community.

I'm not sure if adding an Agent that addresses both collections and collection caretakers would go in line with the original 10 agents. It is the odd one out. What do you think? I like to think adding the people into the agents would help us argue professionally for the importance of sharing collections care work even at the smallest institutions. What are collections anyway if there are no people? I also like to think outreach-oriented themes should be included - or at least mentioned explicitly - in our training programmes, but that's not for me to decide.

How do you feel about Obscurity?

I'll be honest, now that I've given it a name, I find Obscurity to be terrifying. It's even scarier than fires and floods and clothes moths - but in a different sort of way.

Is there any point in fighting the 10 agents of deterioration if we allow Obscurity to take over slowly?

How many of us are concerned about the wellbeing of our collections because we don't know if we'll be here to care for them next quarter?

How many of us are worried because the people in our community don't even know our museum is here?

How many of us have lost hope completely that our voices will be heard to the point where we have stopped trying and just get on with our work, heads down, crossing fingers that it will be okay?

I know communications may not be our strong suit sometimes, but neither was Integrated Pest Management before you learned to do it, was it? Maybe if we start thinking that lack of communication is a preventive conservation issue, then we can start tackling Obscurity properly.

What do you think? Follow me on Twitter to help me share conservation topics with everyone and share your thoughts on this blog post! Let's continue the conversation and fight Obscurity with communication! :)

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