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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 August, 2003, 05:34 GMT 06:34 UK
Academic fights the dust
University of East Anglia
Peter Brimblecombe works at the University of East Anglia
A grime fighter from Norfolk is carrying out research aimed at defeating the problem of dust.

Peter Brimblecombe, from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, has studied dust in museums and historic houses in Essex, London and Kent.

The conventional view is that dust is simply blown in through windows or doors.

But according to Mr Brimblecombe, an atmospheric chemist and dust expert, this is only part of the story.

Mr Brimblecombe is currently carrying out a dust study involving London's Tate Gallery, the National Trust, English Heritage and Historic Royal Palaces.

Fibres just work their way out of woolly jumpers
Katy Lithgow, National Trust

At Tate Britain, a test was carried out to see whether air conditioning helped protect paintings from the ravages of dust.

Microscopic slides were placed on the top edges of frames of several paintings and left for seven days.

Some were in older galleries where ventilation was mainly through doors and skylights. Others were in newer, air-conditioned spaces.

Patches placed on walls

Surprisingly, it turned out that the air-conditioned areas were far from dust-free, being only twice as clean as places without modern ventilation systems.

Mr Brimblecombe and his colleagues used sticky patches to collect dust in several historic houses, including Audley End in Essex, Knole in Kent and Osterley Park in west London.

The patches were placed vertically on walls, curtains and tapestries, and horizontally on bedspreads and floors.

After eight weeks, the samplers were inspected under a microscope.

Tate Gallery
Dust can be a problem for galleries and museums

New Scientist magazine reported that all three studies fingered the same culprit - human beings.

Where there were large numbers of visitors, dust levels were high, and object visitors got closest too were the ones most densely covered.

Skin flakes and strands of hair contributed to the dirt, but the biggest menace turned out to be clothes.

"Fibres just work their way out of woolly jumpers," said Katy Lithgow, a senior conservator with the National Trust.

One solution might be to keep people a safe distance from precious exhibits.

Mr Brimblecombe found that for each additional metre people were kept back from furniture and pictures, the quantity of dust they deposited was halved.

Fibres from jackets

His findings suggested that at least two metres should separate a Tudor chair from a visitor's tweed jacket.

The researchers also discovered that the more vigorously people moved, the more fibres their clothes shed.

This indicates that there might be some benefit in changing the way visitors were directed past exhibits.

In stately homes, for instance, people tended to be most active at the beginning of their visit.

It followed that the most precious exhibits should be displayed last.

Letting the dust settle
04 Mar 02  |  UK News

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