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Museum in a Box Handling During a Global Pandemic

Well, I surely never thought I’d type that headline. But, there you go. Here we are. I’m actually co-writing this blog post with my brother, Dr. Andy Oates. He’s a biologist and professor working at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). It’s been reassuring to have the odd chat with him as the world descends, and we’ve come up with a list of suggestions and tips for you, about handling your Box and objects safely. 

First some terminology: Fomites are inanimate objects or materials that can carry infection, such as clothes, utensils, and furniture, or Museums in Boxes. The term fomite comes from the Latin word for tinder (not the dating app). Scientists have been testing a range of materials to figure out how they relate to the transmission of COVID-19, and figuring out how long the virus can survive on surfaces. Andy will point you to the relevant scientific papers on that if you want more detail. Charlie also wrote about cleaning your Box and objects if you have one in our newsletter this week, so I’ve reposted that too, at the bottom of this post.

The main enemies of COVID-19 are distance, time, and soap. Here’s what Dr. Andy has to say about those:

Distance 

When we cough or sneeze, or even when we yawn or just exhale, we release a mix of droplets and aerosols in our breath. Kind of gross, but there you are. (If you want to know how much water you breathe out, weigh yourself just before you go to bed, and again in the morning.) Droplets are relatively large and heavy, and so they crash to the ground or whatever other surface is around very quickly. Keeping your distance at about 2 metres from another person means you are unlikely to be hit. Aerosols are much smaller, and so stay aloft much longer. This means that in a closed room or other space (car, bus, pub, etc.), the range is much longer. However, it also means that by opening the windows, or by going outside, the risk of aerosol transmission is dramatically reduced, as the tiny particles are diluted more quickly. 

Time

Another way infection is spread is via surfaces, the fomites mentioned above. You’ll recall that when our aerosols or droplets touch a surface, or when we touch our nose or mouth and then a door handle, virus are transferred to that surface. But how long do they survive there? A team of scientists at the National Institutes of Health in the USA looked at the survival time of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, in various situations that mimic how we might typically spread and encounter it in daily life. 

You can read Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2
as Compared with SARS-CoV-1
in the New England Journal of Medicine if you wish, and there are also lots of  media reports floating around, and I have summarized their findings below:

They first created an aerosol in the air that mimicked the density found in the lungs and mouth of an infected human, and deposited it on various surfaces like copper, stainless steel, plastic, and cardboard. At defined time intervals after deposition, they transferred any remaining virus into a petri dish containing kidney cells and counted the number of cells that became infected. This is a tried and trusted method for detecting very small numbers of virus that are still infectious. 

They found that the virus was undetectable after three hours in the aerosol, four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. The amount of virus decreased rapidly in this time (exponentially), so an important lesson is the longer you leave something sitting there, the safer it becomes. For example, if you get a package or letter in the post, put it aside and even if there were virus on it, a day later they will be inactive. Just doing nothing is quite a safe option. 

Soap

Wash your hands! Seriously, this is one of the most important and easy things you can do. Humans continually touch their faces and the surfaces around them, potentially transferring virus back and forth. Yet, despite the potentially deadly nature of SARS-Cov-2, it cannot withstand 20 seconds of contact with warm soapy water. This is because it’s outer shell is partly made of fatty lipids (a lipid bilayer envelope), and our normal household soap or washing-up liquid has been optimised over centuries to break up fatty lipids.  Here’s a great diagram:

Why soap works against the coronavirus

Thanks, Andy. That’s just science-y enough, and very helpful.

OK, so, we want to provide a bit more information on receiving and using your Box, based on this research about fomites (and distance, time, and soap).

When You Receive Your Box

All our packaging is either cardboard or brown paper or string, so it’s a pretty safe bet any sign of the virus would have disappeared from those materials in transit. If you are getting a single Box, your Box will also be inside a polythene mail bag. If you’re getting a Large Org kit or extra Boxes, we may have put them in a larger cardboard container. Those bags or boxes are what’ll have been touched last. 

As tantalising as it is to open it up and get cracking, we’d suggest you pop your parcel in some kind of no-touch zone, for at *least* 24 hours, maybe even 48 hours. After that time, you should be good to go.

If You Already Have A Box, As You Use Your Box, or Share It With Others

Please be sure to look at keeping things clean as you go, per the following suggestions. Water and electronics don’t mix, so make sure everything is unplugged if you’re cleaning.

Cleaning Acrylic Boxes

  1. Wear gloves. 
  2. Use a diluted disinfectant or watery soap solution and a damp-but-not-wet cloth to wipe down the Box. (Why is soap better than bleach?)
    1. Boxes may experience some discoloration if a cleaning solution is too strong. 
  3. Avoid wiping the inside of the Box or electronics or inside the power or AUX jacks, but do wipe the volume knob! 
  4. Ensure the Box is completely dry before turning it on again. 

Cleaning Plywood Boxes

  1. This is harder. The plywood is “raw”, but you could try giving it a careful wipe, as above.
  2. Probably easiest to remove them from circulation, like Dan did at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Cleaning 3D objects

  1. In most cases these are made of PLA (Polylactic acid) so you can also use a diluted disinfectant or soap solution. 
  2. Don’t submerge the objects unless they have intricate areas you can’t easily wipe. 
  3. The NFC tags adhere well to the objects but may work loose if they’re repeatedly submerged and become damaged, and
  4. Again make sure the objects are dry before using again. 

Cleaning 2D postcards

  1. Cards we’ve supplied through a commission, are likely laminated, so will hold up to a wipe. 
  2. Uncoated cards or paper may not hold up well to wiping and may cause colours to run. 
  3. If you have a laminator to hand laminate away! This will make cleaning with a wet cloth much easier and will extend the life of your cards. 

The plastic power plug can also be wiped in the same way but avoid any metal connections and be sure it is completely dry before using again. 

Finally, be sure to wash your hands often and avoid touching your face. And, please pay attention to the distancing rules in your area. This animation of the exponential-ness of infection in the USA is a good slap:


Watch How The Coronavirus Spread Across the United States
on The New York Times website, 22 March 2020

Good luck.

By George Oates

I am the Founder of Museum in a Box!

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