Agents of Deterioration: Water


We talked about fire in the last video, so it makes sense that today we’d talk about the… opposite of fire? The nemesis of fire? I’ve never really thought about the relationship these two agents might have… anyways we’re talking about water!


There are many different ways water can get into your collections. There could be a natural disaster, like a hurricane or a tsunami, or your collection could just be located near a body of water. These can all pose threats if they get escalated. Then we’ve got technological and mechanical issues that can arise like:


  • Sewer failure

  • Sprinkler system malfunctioning

  • Overflowing toilets

  • Leaky roofs

  • You name it.

And of course there are accidents, like when your sprinkler system goes off during a fire. I guess I wouldn’t really call that part an accident, but the fire part is an accident and the water is the accident response, let’s say.


Water damage happens a lot more often than you’d think, and it’s usually from accidents or just neglect. For example, temporarily storing things in a basement and then that basement floods and ruins everything down there.


A lot of cultural heritage objects are very sensitive to water. Also, a more degraded object will be more susceptible to water damage in comparison to something that’s in really good condition or brand new.


Bones can crack, the collagen inside can degrade, and they can be stained. With books, well, we all know what happens to books if you’ve ever accidentally had a water bottle open up in your backpack. The pages get all wavy, the ink runs, and if you have a leather bound book the binding can expand in the water, then shrink when it’s dried out and crack. It’s not a pretty sight. The same sort of thing happens with all leather, and natural materials that contain collagen. They can get very distorted, and even turn into gelatine if it gets bad enough.


If we’re looking at ceramics, which are very big in archaeology, a lot of things could happen with water damage. Ceramics can be very porous and that means salts can enter the fabric and really cause some drama, but also we may lose that lovely patina we all want on our archaeological ceramics. The same similar things happen to porous stone, so salt can get in, and there can also be staining that happens.


Reactive metals, like the ones that can corrode easily react super poorly to water. You can get major rust and corrosion, and if there’s already some on there, it will speed the entire process up. Paintings can delaminate and water soluble paints will…dissolve. Wood can warp and shrink which can loosen joints on furniture.


And of course with any object that gets wet, we have to think of mould growth! That’s a real possibility and something nasty you just don’t want to deal with.


So if all this damage can be done by our little friend H2O, how can we prevent it?


Well, making sure your building or storage area is as water-tight as possible is a good start. Always make sure the building is in good repair and monitored for leaks and make sure your pipes are well insulated for the winter in case one of them freezes and bursts.


Don’t store your artefacts in cardboard boxes, and not just for the water damage. Cardboard is highly acidic and has its own problems. But plastic boxes and other types of cabinets that are water resistant will act as a barrier for any water that does make it into the building.


Keep things off the ground! You know how everyone during a flood yell ‘head for higher ground’? Well, they’re right! Get your boxes and materials at least 6 inches off the ground. Put them on a shelf, or on a support of some kind. This is a huge preventive measure that can save a lot of stuff.


You also should have an emergency kit and plan to deal with water damage like plastic sheeting, rubber gloves, sponges, blotting paper, the whole nine yards.


The biggest thing to do when approaching a collection that has been damaged by water is to contain the flow of water- to stop the flooding. From there remove any standing water and get to work on protecting your objects!


Remove them from their wet environment, prevent mould growth, separate all your objects so they don’t start sticking together. You also want to make sure there isn’t anything being deposited onto the object from contaminated water either, because that can cause a lot of future problems.


There are a lot of different methods and approaches to dealing with materials that have been damaged by water, and they should always be handled by professionals so I’m not going to go into detail about them here. But drying objects out safely is a key priority. You don’t want to just go turn on a blow dryer and blast away the water using heat. Nooooo that’s bad! Drying that’s too fast or too slow can cause tearing or splitting, and it could even warp your object.


Of course if it’s something like a hurricane or major flood, human life always trumps safety of collections so don’t go risking yourself to save the Mona Lisa, it just isn’t worth it.


Looking to find out more?


Canadian Conservation Institute- 10 Agents of Deterioration: Water by David Tremain

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