Caring For Your Treasures: 10 Agents of Deterioration

Updated: May 13, 2020

The first step in protecting your treasures is understanding just what causes damage to them in the first place. Once you know the potential threats you can prioritize and follow-through with necessary preventative measures. The Canadian Conservation Institute came up with a catchy way to explain this: “The 10 Agents of Deterioration.”


The ten agents you need to be aware of are:

  • Physical Forces

  • Thieves and Vandals

  • Dissociation

  • Fire

  • Water

  • Pests

  • Pollutants

  • Light

  • Incorrect Temperature

  • Incorrect Relative Humidity


As part of this series, we will take a closer look at each of these “agents” to really understand what they are, and what we can do to fight them off. This issue will focus on Physical Forces.

Since we are on earth, we must deal with gravity and the physical forces of the world around us. Physical forces can be manmade or caused, or naturally occurring. Sudden socks or long term pressure leads to breakage and deformation. One example of physical force is illustrated in this little cartoon. A man has picked up something too quickly and has knocked into other objects around him.


How many of you have brought your groceries inside and thought you would place them on the counter, only to find you left something else there, and now there isn’t any space to place the groceries? This scenario can be similar to when you move your objects. When moving your treasures, think the entire process through first. Can I carry this on my own? Once I pick it up, where is it going? Is the spot I’m going to place it clear? Are there any hazards in my path? Taking a few extra moments can prevent damage and personal injury.


Consider all the ways physical forces could play a role in your objects. This includes how you handle the object. Exercise caution if the object has a hinge and place something there to support it. The weight of the object and gravity on the hinge could lead to breakage. And speaking of weight, remember, all objects weigh something. Heavy books, plates, metals, etc. can cause shelves to bow. Heavy boxes stacked on top of each other can cause the bottom boxes to crumple and be crushed. Even textiles like clothing have weight, and may be better protected by lying flat. A porcelain doll that has a cloth body for instance, should be supported by a stand or stored flat as the porcelain top is heavier than the body below it and the weight will cause the body to crumple.


Physical forces could be from something natural, such as an earthquake. While you might not be able to fully protect things from an earthquake, taking preventative measures could limit the damage. Are your items secured? Are they tied down, bolted to the wall, or supported?

Just walking into a room causes vibrations to the floor that shakes objects. This makes items on shelves and mantles particularly vulnerable. One way to secure objects without causing damage is with a product called “Museum Wax.” It costs about $11 for two jars (you can purchase it from Amazon here). Take the wax, make a ball, and place it on the bottom of objects to secure it. The wax is then easily and safely removed from your objects whenever necessary.

We use museum wax on many objects at the William Paca House. In this picture here, you can see several of the places I put museum wax on the garnitures on the mantel in the Dining Room to secure them. Notice the lid is also secured to the base as well.


No matter what your object is, be sure to think about the physical forces affecting it!


Robin Matty Curator of Collections


#historicannapolis #collections #curator #curatorscorner #collectionscare #decorativearts

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