Ten Agents of Deterioration

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This is part of a Preventive Care series about the Ten Agents of Deterioration.


The Ten Agents of Deterioration

Physical Forces

Main article: Physical Forces

Examples of damaging physical forces may include those that are fast and catastrophic including both natural disaster and human error (such as earthquakes, or bumping or dropping an object), or slower acting with minor but repeated opportunity for damage (such as improper handling during research and educational use, or vibrations from nearby construction).

Thieves, Vandals, Displacers

Main article: Thieves, Vandals, Displacers

This includes, Planned theft by someone intent on violating the collection, opportunistic theft by visitors, embezzlement by staff, and vandalism.


Main article: Fire

Fire can potentially lead to the quick and catastrophic loss of an entire collection.


Main article: Water Collections storage areas are frequently placed in attic or basement spaces which are most vulnerable to water damage in the event of a roof or plumbing leak, sprinkler system malfunction or flooding.


Main article: Pests

Pests encompass both rodents and insects. Some also consider mold/mildew/fungi to fall under this category.


Main article: Pollutants

Pollutants can be generated both and outside and inside buildings. Many pollutants known to cause human health problems can also cause damage in collections. The two general types of pollutants that contribute to the deterioration of museum collections are particulates and gasses. These can be airborne or transferred by direct contact.


Main article: Light

Light damage, which is cumulative and, once sustained, irreversible, is a function of light intensity (in lux or footcandles) times length of exposure.

Incorrect Temperature

Main article: Incorrect Temperature

The detrimental effects of incorrect temperature (either too high or too low) are often observed after considerable time has passed and so the slow deterioration that results is often underestimated.

Incorrect Relative Humidity

Main article: Incorrect Relative Humidity

Organic materials all contain moisture; they absorb and give off moisture and try to find a balance between their moisture content and that in the air around them. If the relative humidity (moisture content) in the air goes up, they will absorb moisture and swell, and if it goes down, they will give off moisture and shrink. If this occurs slowly and moderately then no damage will be caused. However, sudden, large and frequent relative humidity fluctuations can cause shrinkage, warping, splitting, and general aging of objects made of organic materials. A sudden increase in relative humidity can cause condensation on metal artifacts, which will promote corrosion.

Custodial Neglect & Dissasociation

Main article: Custodial Neglect

One type of custodial neglect occurs when active care is not taken to preserve the collection or when information and practices on collections care are not current. The second type of custodial neglect is the disassociation of collection objects and their records.


Preventive Conservation and Agents of Deterioration