After the pandemic forced the closure of the Getty Center over a year ago, the galleries stood empty, filled with artworks but devoid of visitors—or so it seemed. Routine pest monitoring in April of last year discovered some unwelcome guests hiding around one of the South Pavilion decorative arts galleries’ most popular works, the pink 18th-century French day bed.
Those guests were webbing clothes moths: one-centimeter-long insects that eat wool, silk, and dust during their larval stage. Weekly pest monitoring, which is part of regular preventive conservation activities at the Museum, revealed that there was an uptick in the number of these critters found in the traps that are routinely placed around the Museum’s galleries.
“This was one of the first hints to us of the importance and the scope of this project,” said Michael Mitchell, lead preparator at the Museum.
So launched Getty’s year-long project to deep-clean the galleries. A recent Los Angeles Times article also looks at the work behind the intensive moth remediation.
When the Getty Center reopens, visitors will wander through galleries that have been painstakingly cleaned, rid of any insects, and treated to head off future pest activity. The process took months of deinstalling artworks and methodically cleaning them and the surrounding galleries. The pandemic offered a rare opportunity to work uninterrupted in the galleries for months at a time—an undertaking that would have been difficult if the museum was open to the public.
Three factors led to the increased moth activity. First, the lockdown started in the spring, when insects are naturally more active and like to breed, due to the warmer weather. It’s not unusual to see increased pest activity in the galleries during this period. Second, the museum is now over twenty years old, so dust and debris from visitors have accumulated in nooks, crannies, and other hard-to-clean places over the years. The moths love to hide in these dark areas and eat the dust that gathers there. Third, anecdotal reports from museums all over the world suggest that moths are being observed in collections more and more frequently and global moth populations are growing—possibly a result of climate change, among other reasons.
Another factor was the prolonged closure. Insects don’t like to be disturbed, so dark, empty galleries with no visitors created favorable conditions for the moths to thrive.
Getty is not alone when it comes to pest problems; museums like the British Museum are also coping with bugs in the wake of the pandemic. In fact, pest activity is a common, inherent challenge for museums. Museums have long known about the existence of pests that are attracted to certain kinds of fabrics and textiles featured in works of art, so integrated pest management is a routine aspect of preventive care of the collection.
So, how do you remove webbing clothes moths? For museums, the best answer is cleaning. Many artworks have delicate surfaces that could be affected by chemical spray treatments, so instead, conservators rely on good housekeeping practices as well as freezing and anoxic treatments to eliminate pest activity.
In May, a small team of preparators and conservators came to the galleries and spent the day cleaning and vacuuming all fabric surfaces of the pink day bed, and surrounded it with plastic to prevent any re-infestation. While they were on site, they also noticed moth activity in the gallery that features the blue bed, another piece of 18th-century French furniture. So, again, they cleaned and vacuumed the fabric and surfaces, and then wrapped that bed in plastic to try to keep it moth-free.
When some museum staff members returned to work on-site in June, the first priority was to remove and vacuum as many textiles as they could. This included tapestries, carpets, draperies, screens, and upholstered furniture. The faces of the tapestries were vacuumed while still hanging in the galleries, using lifts to access the upper portion. After the tapestries were vacuumed, they were deinstalled utilizing a system of ropes and pulleys to lay them face-down on paper that covered the gallery floor. The backs were vacuumed, covered with layers of polyester batting and muslin and carefully rolled up, then wrapped in plastic and sealed. The cleaning and rolling process required up to eight staff members and could last for an entire day.
Prepared textiles then went into a freezer at -20 degrees Fahrenheit for ten days to kill any adults, larvae or eggs that might be present. The freezer, a 20-foot insulated cargo container, could only accommodate between three and six objects per ten-day treatment, due to the size of the prepared textiles and to provide adequate airflow.
Staff also deep-cleaned the galleries, which required removing many objects and paintings (some of which had not been moved since the museum’s opening over twenty years ago) to allow a thorough cleaning of the walls, floor surfaces, baseboards and moldings, display cases, air returns, and spaces behind and below the objects. Removing the paintings also allowed conservators to perform a thorough dusting and survey of all paintings in the North and East Pavilions.
While some work continues, most galleries are now fully cleaned, dust- and bug-free.
“Throughout this process, we’ve learned an incredible amount about our galleries and how pests move through them,” said Madeline Corona, assistant conservator in decorative arts. “And we’ve also seen a significant reduction of moths in the areas where all of our cleaning procedures have been completed.”
Bugs are a fact of life in museums, and they will likely return someday. But Getty staff has effective methods for dealing with them and stands ready to treat any outbreak that may arise.