44th Annual Meeting- Textiles Session, May 16, "A Biological Disaster to Costume," by Cathy Zaret, Mary Ballard, and Carol Grissom

When we hear the word “disaster,” images of fire or flood and the subsequent damage might spring to mind, but what about the silent, tiny disaster that might be steadily digesting your collection? Cathy Zaret, presenting for Mary Ballard, provided a graphic example of just how damaging an infestation can be in her talk, “A Biological Disaster to Costume.”
The site of this infestation was a townhouse on Vermont Avenue in Washington, DC that housed the Black Fashion Museum. Founded in 1979 by Lois K. Alexander Lane, the museum’s collection is comprised of over 700 costumes, 300 accessories and 60 boxes of archival material; all designed, sewn or worn by African Americans. Notable highlights include the dress worn by Rosa Parks in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, costumes designed by Geoffrey Holder for “The Wiz,” and the wedding dress, designed by Ann Lowe, worn Jacqueline Bouvier when she became Mrs. Kennedy.

Lois K. Alexander Lane
Lois K. Alexander Lane

The Black Fashion Museum was the life’s work and passion of Lane and after her death in 2007, the future of the collection was uncertain. Lane’s daughter, Joyce Bailey, ultimately donated the collection in its entirety to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but while its fate was decided, the collection was sealed in a building without climate control and without monitoring. When the Smithsonian conservation team arrived to assess the collection, what they found was a dramatic example of the importance of good housekeeping. The collection was crawling with carpet beetles. Cathy offered the speculation that ground zero, a red dress surrounded by waves of red frass (a slight exaggeration on my part, cue horror movie soundtrack), was in a closet on the second floor, near a walled up fireplace. Left to run riot, what might have been a beetle or two became an infestation of epic proportions.
Carpet beetles (usually referencing genus Anthrenus and the various species including varied, museum and furniture carpet beetles) are ubiquitous throughout the United States (and beyond). The adults feed on pollen and nectar and are attracted to light, but females will seek dark and secluded places to lay their eggs. One female can lay 30-40 eggs on a food source. The developing larva can wreak havoc during their 3-36 month development as they feed on proteinaceous materials. As the infestation of the infamous red dress was undiscovered for some time, larva fed and matured into egg-laying adults, multiplying the hungry mouths with each generation.
In describing the way that Mary Ballard and her team addressed the infestation, Cathy stressed that an active infestation is a disaster that can come home with you. Carpet beetles, though they keep on giving, are not a gift you want to give to your friends (or museum). Quarantine is essential. Access to the site should be restricted and precautions taken to prevent the spread of the infestation. When working in the townhouse, team members were encouraged to wear clothing of cellulosic materials and to wash those clothes immediately after leaving the site. You can never say immediately too many times!
As the insect activity had to be addressed before the collection could be processed, the contents of the townhouse were documented in situ, triage packed and moved by truck to the support center of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute. At the MCI, the entire collection of the Black Fashion Museum underwent an anoxic treatment using argon gas. In an environment with less than 1000ppm of oxygen for 30 consecutive days (the time for treatment will vary based on gas used, temperature, RH, and species), all life-stages should be rendered unviable. At the MCI, two vapor impermeable bubbles, each 8’x11’x11’ were constructed and the ambient oxygen was slowly reduced.
The bubbles were monitored during treatment (safety first! Always have a partner and monitor the oxygen levels around the bubbles), and the argon was topped off to ensure that oxygen levels were kept below the necessary minimum.
After the completion of the anoxic treatment, a condition survey and surface cleaning was still required for the contents of the 273 boxes moved from the townhouse. Although the treatment should have rendered all life-stages unviable, cast off larval skins and insect remains can provide a food source for future insects. Every surface, every layer of tulle in a massive confection of nylon net, needed to be vacuumed. As at the townhouse, nozzles and brushes needed to be washed after each use.
This massive treatment was absolutely essential in incorporating the Black Fashion Museum into the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’m looking forward to viewing some of the iconic and historic objects on display when the museum opens this fall!
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane

If you haven’t checked it out, the NMAAHC webpage has a lot of material to explore and information about the upcoming grand opening.
For additional information, MuseumPests.net is the go-to site for identification and great fact sheets on different solutions.