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By Rowena Hartley on

Keep it clean: The dangers of dust

Dust is probably something you wouldn’t be surprised to see a little of in museums and historic houses. Yet behind the scenes there’s an almost constant battle to keep the spread of dust at bay.
Cleaning the replica Avro Type F in Revolution Manchester
Cleaning the replica Avro Type F in Revolution Manchester

First off, what is dust made of? Generally speaking it’s soil, pollen, a good amount of skin and general debris. But actually this varies quite a lot. By a busy road you’ll have more emission and pollutant dust; woodland will give you a lot of pollen and spores; by the sea your dust will be a lot sandier and saltier; and if you have a pet you can expect a lot more animal skin and fur. Here at the Museum we have some dust from passing traffic, metal dust from our objects, and lots of skin and clothing fibres from our visitors.

The Lancashire Steam Boiler before cleaning...
The Lancashire Steam Boiler before cleaning…
...and after cleaning
…and after cleaning

So dust isn’t the most pleasant of things and it does make the place look untidy, but there’s a bit more to museums’ dislike of dust than just that. As dust is largely organic (all that pollen and skin), when it starts to build up it attracts small creatures which feed on the dust and then on the museum objects. These small creatures in turn attract larger ones, such as spiders and occasionally mice. If you’re lucky enough to escape the insects, dust also encourages rust (especially if your dust is particularly salty) and mould growth (especially if it’s humid). Even without these issues, the longer you leave dust the more likely it is to become cemented in, and whilst a good bit of soapy water might sort out that bit behind your fridge, museum objects tend to be a little more fragile so require more delicate handling to scrub away the layers of dust (for a particularly impressive example you can see our partner museum’s bit of conservation on the link below).

Cleaning planes in the Air and Space Hall
Cleaning planes in the Air and Space Hall

The obvious solution would be to clean the museum all of the time but the more we handle antique objects the more likely they are to be damaged, and a bit of overenthusiastic cleaning can scrub away bits of history piece by piece. So instead we attempt to clean the objects periodically dependant on their fragility and simply how dusty they look. However, this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds as dust isn’t that predictable and outside forces can affect how dusty an area can get. These forces include wind speed, traffic levels, number of visitors, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Whilst the last two are unlikely in central Manchester, building works and heavy machinery can be an unexpected source of dust as their vibrations literally shake the dust from the walls and ceilings. So in this case we monitor dust levels with Dust Traps. These are essentially a layer of adhesive that provides a sample for the amount of dust which has fallen. Perhaps the term ‘trap’ makes it sounds a little more exciting than it should but with the help of a photo-microscope we get to see close up just what’s falling in our museum.

If you’re interested:

What’s almost as bad as dust? Crumbs!:

About different types of pests:

And how we deal with them:

Cleaning antique objects:

Dust in exhibitions:

Dust in depth:

‘Investigating and Monitoring Dust’ No.53

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