Damaging Elements to Framed Documents and Artwork

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What are the most damaging elements to a framed document?

Your artwork is vulnerable to damage from many different sources, below are the descriptions of some of the most pervasive causes of deterioration, which include: moisture, insects, acids and light.

Moisture Damage

Any framed document or piece of work is vulnerable to damage if moisture from the air is absorbed into the paper causing the paper to warp, or encourage the growth of mold. A mild effect of moisture damage is cockling, which causes a sheet of paper to expand more in one direction than another, creating a wavy appearance inside the frame rather than lying flat. Conservators recommend leaving the artwork or document alone rather than stopping it by stretching or mounting the piece (if the effects are not severe, and not detracting from the piece). The reason for this is, artwork will change according to the weather, appearing wavy in hot, humid months, and more flat at cooler times during the year, stretching the piece could ultimately damage the piece more than letting the paper react naturally.

Humidity is a large factor in moisture damage. When humidity is high, it may cause chemicals and acids within the paper to break down, making the paper weak and brittle and the higher the humidity, the faster the process. Humidity is also responsible for the growth of mold and mildew, and can attract insects. Mildew is the beginning stage of mold growth, and is typically smelled before it is seen. Once it matures into the mold fungus, it appears green or black, and attacks by digesting the cellulose fibers within the paper, breaking it down and leaving stains. To treat mold, take the piece out of the humid environment to dry out. This will not kill the mold spores, but will stop further growth. In order to kill the spores, it is necessary to fumigate, and should be handled only by a professional conservator.

The best way to avoid damage from moisture is to keep artwork in a well ventilated area, away from humidity. It is recommended that humidity by kept below 60% in the frame, and this constant temperature can be kept by running an air conditioner, fan or dehumidifier.

Insect Damage

There are many insects that will attack and can completely destroy artwork, the most common of these insects are silverfish, book lice, wood worms, termites and cockroaches. Insect attacks may go unnoticed until there is extensive damage, or complete infestation. Damage caused by insects will appear as holes in the paper, or stains left by the insects’ excrement. If infestation has occurred, the artwork must be brought to a professional conservator or be treated by a certified exterminator.

Different insects will affect artwork in different ways, the insects listed above will each attack the piece in a unique way. Silverfish will feed on starch, cellulose, animal sizing and bleached wood pulp paper, and they will completely destroy and devour the art. Book lice live in damp areas and feed on mold, starch, organic glues, cloth, silk and leather. Wood worms and termites will both eat through wood and paper, however, wood worms will tunnel through the artwork for up to five years. Finally, cockroaches will cause mainly surface damage to paper, fabric and adhesives that contain sugar.

Acid Damage

Acids are found in certain matboards and in paper itself, and over time they will eat away at the cellulose in paper, making it brittle and causing it to turn yellow. Although mats and products may be listed as “acid-free” over time artwork can absorb pollutants and airborne acids, which will have these same effects. As paper and mats become more acidic over time, it is important to control the environment around the artwork to slow down the process.

Light Damage

Light damage on artwork is the most pervasive and difficult to avoid. Light causes fading, color changes, chemical alterations in paper and paint, and degrading cellulose. The speed and degree of damage to artwork depends on the intensity of the light source and the duration of exposure. To avoid damage, paper should be displayed under the lowest practical light levels, and spotlights and picture lights should never be aimed directly at the art. Also, avoid placing artwork in places where it will be exposed to direct morning and afternoon sunlight

Other causes of damage to art are air pollution, heat and improper handling and storage. All of these factors may increase the chances of airborne pollutants and acids attacking the piece and causing significant damage. These elements also may lead to damage from moisture and insects as well.

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