Historian and filmmaker Ken Burns once described the artifact collection of The Mark Twain House & Museum as a "treasure trove of unbelievable holdings on the life, work and history of Mark Twain.
Today, thousands of those items are at risk from mold, and the museum is acting to repair the damage caused by a malfunctioning heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
State taxpayers already have footed the bill to fix the HVAC and a leak in the roof. Now, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving is paying most of the bill to clean up the extensive mold damage first discovered in 2015.
In November 2015, mold was found in the storage facilities of the historic home's museum center, tainting at least 5,000 of the museum's 16,000 artifacts. The vulnerable pieces are varied: 19th-century furniture, upholstery, metal, glass and leather items, as well as books, including some Twain first editions and translations, whose fabric and leather bindings are conducive to mold growth. The spread of the mold has been halted for the time being — the HVAC system has been repaired and the archive's relative humidity is being carefully monitored — but the task remains to remove the mold that already is there.
"Because the artifacts are historic, valuable and delicate ... they must be handled very carefully and with special skill," the Hartford Foundation concluded when it awarded a $223,900 grant to the Mark Twain House. "Because mold is damaging to artifacts, it is necessary to remove the mold spores from each of the affected artifacts as soon as possible in order to properly preserve the objects and ensure there is no new nor spreading growth of mold."
The total cost of the museum's climate-control and mold-remediation project is a little more than $1 million, with $750,000 funded through state bonds, plus the $223,900 foundation grant and another $75,000 from the museum.
The mold-removal work, which the Hartford Foundation described as "painstaking," will begin on Feb. 13 and go on for three to four months, said Marc Williams, an East Windsor conservator and leader of the six-person team that will do the cleaning.
Mold Discovered In 2015
The Farmington Avenue house where the legendary author lived with his family from 1874 to 1891 has its share of old-house mold, but the house itself is not the focus of the grant allocation. Rather, it is the museum center, which was built next door to the house and was unveiled in 2003.
That $750,000 in state bond money is part of the $2.2 million that the Twain received in July 2014 from the State Bond Commission for infrastructure repairs, according to Cindy Lovell, who was the Twain's executive director from February 2013 to December 2016. The rest of that $2.2 million was spent fixing the museum's crumbling front steps and refurbishing the Mahogany suite and the carriage house barn, interim executive director Amy Gallent said.
Joel Freedman, who has been president of the Twain house board of directors since January 2014, said the additional $75,000 was raised by insurance proceeds and a grant from the Mark Twain Foundation. Gallent said the museum's insurance policy had a maximum claim limit of just $50,000 on mold liability; the museum was paid the maximum.
Freedman said that the HVAC repairs were finished late last year, but that the system hasn't been tested yet during a warm season, when heat and humidity are more friendly to mold growth.
Lovell was at the helm of the historical museum when the mold was discovered and when the grant was sought and approved. She declined to comment about the mold remediation project.
Gallent said curators brought the mold to the attention of museum management in November 2015; the grant application was completed in August 2016. Museum spokeswoman Jennifer LaRue said the nine-month delay between the discovery and the application for funds was due to time taken to find the right conservator and ensuring that an HVAC system was well on its way to being repaired before asking for the money.
The American Alliance of Museums, in a document "Mitigating Risks to Collections," lists incorrect relative humidity and water as two of the nine leading "agents of deterioration" affecting museum collections, the others being contaminants, incorrect temperature, fire, incorrect handling, light, pests and security. The AAM's top two recommendations to ameliorate risks are environmental monitoring and climate control. "A well-maintained building is perhaps the most important piece in the control of the internal environment," the document states.
Williams, of the American Conservation Consortium, said that artifacts made of organic materials are the most susceptible to mold growth, but that photographs, letters, documents and other works on paper held by the museum seem to be safer, as they are stored in multiple layers of envelopes.
Museum officials say most of the items in its collection are artifacts from the period when Twain's family lived in the house; others are related to the famous author and his work but were not necessarily items owned by that family. Gallent said items owned by Twain and his family members are stored in special boxes and are probably safer from mold.
Williams, who has worked in the past with the White House, Mount Vernon, the Hermitage and other historic houses and historical museums, said that the mold on the items in the approximately 2,000-square-foot Twain storage room is not spreading.
"Typically mold won't grow below 60 percent relative humidity," he said. "It becomes dormant." He added that mold that isn't spreading isn't a threat to humans and that there is no mold on the walls, just the artifacts.
Mold growth has been kept at bay, Williams said, by a series of large dehumidifiers he installed in the storage facility in June 2016. Those dehumidifiers will be the museum's back-up plan if the newly repaired HVAC system fails again, he said.
Problems With Geothermal Wells
Freedman, the Mark Twain House president, said he had concerns with the building's sophisticated HVAC system, which uses groundwater heat pumps for cooling.
"The geothermal wells were perhaps not the best system to be put in place when we built the visitors' center," he said. "They have not operated well over the years."
Jacques Lamarre, director of communication and special programs from 2009 to 2016, said there were many problems with the geothermal wells.
"The motors in the geothermal wells that moderate the temperature in the building would break down regularly," Lamarre said. "One of the wells malfunctioned, causing enormous pressure to build up in the system. The pipes in the mechanical room burst in multiple places, causing water to flood down the back hall of the museum center. The auditorium was flooded with a foot and a half of water.''
"The explosion of the geothermal well led to an increase in the humidity problem in the building at large because the decision was made to cap the wells instead of repairing them," he said.
Ilene Frank, curator at the Connecticut Historical Society, said she was told even the Twain's gallery was sometimes unsafe for artifacts. A dress the historical society loaned to the Twain House for an exhibit last year had to be removed from the gallery for a while, she said.
Gallent added that they have suspended borrowing any more items from other museums until it is certain that the HVAC system is working properly. "Two exhibits coming in March will be based on our own things," Gallent said.
The Mark Twain House has been stretched thin financially for years, largely due to the embezzling of more than $1 million by a former employee between 2002 and 2010. In 2006, it restructured debt on the museum center and got a $3.5 million grant from the state to avoid bankruptcy, but nonetheless the house had to lay off 33 of its 50 employees in 2008.