Preserving geological museum collections

It has long been recognised that art and archaeological collections in museums may need specialised conditions and conservation to survive. However, until relatively recently, geological collections have not had the same level of care. Perhaps, it was thought that rocks, minerals and fossils that had already survived millions of years do not need any particular attention. Although geological material may appear strong and durable, there are factors that can lead to the deterioration and even the complete destruction of specimens. The last 20 years have therefore seen a growing interest in storage conditions for geological collections with some museums appointing specialist conservators to care for them.

The museum environment

The museum environment is traditionally a compromise between the need to preserve objects and to provide comfortable conditions for staff and visitors. Unfortunately for specimens, when there is a conflict, human interest often wins. Environmental factors, including temperature, humidity, light and pollution, can be major threats to geological material.

Temperature alone does not usually cause damage to specimens, but it can speed up the rate of deterioration and changes in temperature can affect relative humidity (RH). There are no ideal levels of temperature and relative humidity suitable for all geological material, but the commonly accepted parameters are 20oC plus or minus 2oC, and 50% plus or minus 5% RH, and air-conditioned stores are set at these. However, many specimens do not have the benefit of these conditions and, even those that do, can still degrade and fall apart.

Anoxic 1Ammonite specimen with pyrite decay showing damage to the specimen and the label. © National Museum Wales.


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