Wash your hands. We’ve heard this a lot lately. It’s key to protecting yourself during the Covid-19 crisis. But washing hands before handling works in your collection is also one of the most important practices to minimize risk to objects and works of art.
Adopting simple, common sense handling practices prevent unexpected stains, marks, tears, chips, gauges and other dreaded types of damage to works. How often do you mindlessly use a book as a coaster? Perhaps you’ve never suffered the consequences of knocking over a drink. But, if you have, it’s a reminder that accidents can and do occur. And when they do, you don’t want to damage a favorite piece in your collection.
I’ve put together some basic handling tips you can apply to all types of collections, regardless of material or category. Paintings, paper-based materials (photographs, prints, drawings, historical documents), antique furniture, textiles, and specialty objects (clocks, musical instruments, antique toys and coins for example) all have specific handling requirements to address their unique needs.
Seven Basic Tips for Handling Objects and Works of Art
1. Clean your hands
Wash your hands with soap and water before handling anything in your collection. Why? To prevent soiling. Oils from your skin attach to objects, attracting dirt and dust that can discolor a work and cause serious or irreversible damage to objects that may not be visible immediately.
Always make sure your hands are dry.
Avoid hand lotions (more oils) and hand cleaning wipes. Also: be mindful of using alcohol-based hand sanitizers! They can help kill Covid-19, but may turn coated papers yellow, especially when they’re exposed to high temperature and humidity in your home. You can read more about this in an article published by The Library of Congress.
The last thing you want is a visible fingerprint on particularly vulnerable works on paper (such as photographs, drawings, prints, historical memorabilia), or to mar a mat or an expensive frame.
2. Consider wearing cotton or nitrile gloves
To wear or not to wear? Cultural institutions differ on this subject. Some professionals reason that you’re less likely to damage an object or work when wearing gloves than using clean, bare hands.
Others recommend wearing gloves based on the characteristics of an object, like those made of metal (prone to fingerprints) unglazed ceramics (which can absorb oils) or textiles (ditto). There’s no right or wrong answer.
Whether you use gloves or bare hands, your objective is to grip the object safely. Have you noticed most professional art handlers wear nitrile gloves (synthetic latex)? While you may do less damage wearing gloves, washing hands with soap is a perfectly fine solution. Always consult a conservator for advice if you’re unsure. As a professional archivist, my personal preference is nitrile gloves … over clean hands.
3. Be aware of what you’re wearing
Avoid bulky or loose clothing and wide sleeves that can get caught on an object.
Remove anything that dangles, like jewelry (watches, bracelets, necklaces, rings, keys) that can brush against, catch on or disfigure an object you’re handling or carrying. Be mindful of clothing and personal effects even when hanging or removing a framed work from a wall.
4. Stage objects on a clean work area
Always handle your works on clean, flat and dry surfaces. Consider laying works on a clean cloth or on acid-free tissue paper.
5. Avoid placing drinks or food, or using pens near objects
Never eat or drink while handling works in your collections. Period. It’s easy to forget but important to be wary of inadvertently placing even a water bottle on the same table near a treasured work.
Never use pens, whether ball point or felt tip, near works of art, historical manuscripts or paper of any kind. Period. Ink damage on paper is often irreversible or can be, at the very least, difficult to remove by a conservator. When writing near an object, only use a pencil.
6. Moving objects and works of art (general guidelines)
Visually inspect every object before moving it. Be especially careful moving works that have repairs, especially older repairs, which can become brittle or weak with movement.
Handle one object at a time – you’ll have much better control.
Use both hands – always!
Move objects in their normal, upright position.
Never lift a sculpture by holding onto a protruding part such as an arm, leg or head!
Never lift an object by the edges, even if it was designed as a utilitarian vessel with handles (these may be the weakest parts).
Always use safe lifting techniques (not just for the object, but for you).
Avoid distractions and keep your focus.
7. Moving matted and unmatted work on paper (general guidelines)
Never hold matted works upside down.
Carefully slide a rigid support, such as acid-free mat board or cardboard, beneath weak or brittle matted or unmatted works when moving.
Only lift window mats from the outside corners of the mat or from the outer sides only.
Don’t lift a window mat by placing fingers on the inner edge of the window to avoid scratching the surface of a work.
Handle older matted works by placing your hands beneath the mat board, as older mats can become brittle and snap.
It’s easy for accidents to happen at home. These recommendations may seem like common sense, but they’re good reminders for all. Make them routine. By practicing these very simple, very basic handling techniques, you can help avoid an unfortunate mishap with an object or work you love and value.
If you have questions, let me know. If you’d like personal guidance, I'm here to help. Contact me for a free 30-minute consult.
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