Determining Mold and Mechanical Deterioration Risk for an Artifact Storage Box

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Author: Michael Calhoun

Grade Level: 5th - 7th; Type: Environmental Science/Meteorology


  • What is the project about?
  • One of the primary responsibilities of the custodian of artworks and museum artifacts is to preserve them for future generations. A major cause of damage to museum objects and other antiquities is by mold’s rotting effect along with fluctuating relative humidity and temperature material stresses. This science fair project will focus on the relationship between temperature, relative humidity and dew point in predicting the likely hood of a mold outbreak and the risk of mechanical deterioration of artifacts placed in a storage box.

  • What are the goals?
  • An artifact storage chamber will be constructed out of an empty cardboard box. Temperature and humidity will be measured over the course of a week. The measurements will be inserted into a special online “Dew Point/Preservation Metric” calculator designed to express and visualize the relationship between temperature, relative humidity and dew point to the effeteness of a storage system. Based on the results of these readings a data table will be prepared and the results potted in a series of graphs. An understanding of how the variables of temperature, relative humidity, and dew point influence each other is essential to managing storage environments.

Research Questions:

  • What is an artifact storage box?
  • What is the relationship between temperature, relative humidity, and dew point?
  • Did the temperature, relative humidity, and dew point remain fairly constant over the 5 day recording period?
  • If the dew point were close to the air temperature inside of the storage box, what would this indicate about relative humidity?
  • What is mold?
  • Were there any days when the risk of a mold outbreak was high?
  • When the mold risk was high what were the temperature, relative humidity, and dew point readings?
  • What appears to be the relationship between temperature, relative humidity, and dew point when the mold risk inside of the storage box is high?
  • What is artifact mechanical damage or deterioration?
  • Were there any days when the risk of mechanical damage to the artwork and/or artifact was high?
  • When the risk of mechanical damage ot the artwork and/or artifact were high what were the temperature, relative humidity, and dew point readings?
  • If there were days when the mold and mechanical damage levels were high what steps could be taken to reduce or lower the levels?

In the world of artwork and museum artifacts preservation preventing material stresses and/or premature deterioration by mold are profoundly influenced by environmental conditions inside of the storage chamber. A proper environment can prevent damage, and an improper environment can cause damage. Temperature, relative humidity, and dew point are very important factors in preventing or increasing both stress induce premature artifact destruction and/or deterioration by mold.

Molds are forms of fungi found indoors and outdoors all year round. Outdoors, molds live in the soil, on plants and on dead or decaying matter. Another common term for mold is mildew. Mold growth is encouraged by warm and humid conditions, although it can grow during cold weather. There are many thousands of species of mold.They can be in any color, including white, orange, green, brown, or black. Most fungi, including molds, produce microscopic cells called “spores” that are spread easily through the air. Live spores act like seeds, forming new mold growths (colonies) with the right conditions.

Molds do not require liquid water to grow. They only require relative humidity levels from 65% to 99% at the surface on which they grow. If the humidity is kept low enough, it is possible to prevent mold growth. Maintaining relative humidity below 50% inhibits mold and mildew growth, dust mite infestations, and bacteria all of which can have adverse affects on artworks and artifacts.

Air temperature is a measure of the heat content of the air and relative humidity is the ratio of the amount of water vapor in the air at a specific temperature to the maximum amount that the air can hold at that temperature, expressed as a percentage.

A psychrometer is an instrument commonly used in laboratories to measure relative humidity. It is also referred to as a wet and dry bulb thermometer. This instrument consists of two similar thermometers that are mounted side by side. The dry bulb has its bulb exposed to the air. The wet bulb is wrapped in an absorbent material such as gauze, which is immersed in water and serves as a wick. When the web bulb is taken out of the water, it cools by evaporation of the water. The amount of evaporation, and consequent cooling of the thermometer, depends on the humidity of the atmosphere the drier the atmosphere, the faster the water evaporates.

Dew Point measures the absolute moisture content of the air. Therefore, it determines how much moisture to add or subtract (humidify or dehumidify) to achieve the appropriate relative humidity in a storage environment. The primary function of the online “Dew Point /Preservation Metric” calculator used in this science fair project is to express and visualize the relationship between temperature, relative humidity and dew point. The calculator integrates temperature and relative humidity (RH) values to estimate the rate of mold buildup and basic structural material decay that will occur in a storage system.

Mechanical stresses caused by fluctuating relative humidity and temperature can causes as much damage to artifacts and artwork as mold. A change in temperature can expand or contract metal, stone and other inorganic materials. All objects come to temperature equilibrium quickly, rarely taking more than 24 hours. In a mixed collection of artifacts, temperature change does not damage as many objects as significantly as relative humidity fluctuation. A change in relative humidity may cause warping, splitting, and dimensional changes due to moisture absorption.

A Preservation Metrics (PM) can be used to predict mold outbreaks or the risk of mechanical damage to artifacts and artwork. Determining the mold and mechanical deterioration risks for the homemade artifact storage box will be based on the results generated by a preservation metric.

  • Any required diagrams/pictures (Pictures speak a thousand words!)

Digital photos can be taken during the investigation process also the following sites offer down loadable images that can be used on the display board:

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