Taking care of business (and artifacts, too)

Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site

By Jeanette Cowen and Megan O’Connor

On a hot day in the summer of 2020, staff at Fort St. Joseph National Historic Site noticed the bateau on display in the visitor centre appeared to be leaking! The liquid turned out to be a wood preservative and not a major threat to the artifact. It did, however, start a conversation with Parks Canada’s Collections, Curatorial, and Conservation staff.

Artifacts in museums and collections storage facilities have individual needs and can face many threats. Over time, factors such as pests, light, temperature, and humidity can negatively affect artifacts. Then there are security concerns and potential damage from handling. Being a cultural resource is a risky business! 

The wood preservative used in the bateau is Polyethylene Glycol (PEG), and humidity can make it leach.  Even though it will not damage the integrity of the artifact (it has already done its job in terms of preservation), leaching PEG can attract dust, which is not desirable. The PEG incident prompted Parks Canada to conduct a risk assessment of the collection at Fort St. Joseph to ensure the conditions in the visitor centre building are not posing potential harm to the artifacts used to tell the story of the War of 1812-era fort.

Preventive conservation is a practice whereby measures are taken to reduce or delay the degradation of artifacts, whether on display or in storage, through the implementation of environmental controls. These measures are more cost-effective and time-efficient than remedial conservation treatments on cultural heritage resources that have been damaged.

In October 2021, Megan O’Connor, a Parks Canada Preventative Conservation Specialist traveled to Fort St. Joseph to do the risk assessment. Once finalized, Megan’s report will outline potential threats to the collection housed in the Fort St Joseph Visitor Centre. Threats might include rodent and insect pests, high relative humidity, natural disasters, and dust. The report will include recommendations developed in collaboration with curators, cultural resource advisors, archaeologists, and Parks Canada’s fire protection engineer. Ultimately, the report will provide site staff with a prioritized list of tasks to care for the on-site collection.

Staff working at parks and sites play an important role in the front-line preservation and presentation of historical and archaeological artifact collections. By proactively engaging with cultural heritage specialists and seeking guidance and customized recommendations, the fort will continue to preserve cultural resources in its care for the enjoyment and education of current and future generations.

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