Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

How We Do It: Handling Our Artifacts

May 28, 2015

In a current TV series celebrities donning white cotton gloves view documents and rare books as they learn about their family history. But is this really the way that professional museum and archives staff handle the hundreds or thousands of artifacts that are entrusted to their care?

What is the logic behind this practice?

The fact is that moisture, salt and dirt on human hands can damage artifacts and embed particles of dirt onto the surface of artifacts, this can permanently harm some artifacts. In the case of uncoated metals the human hand provides the perfect combination of salt and moisture in the form of sweat to cause damage in the form of corrosion. The image below shows a fingerprint on a brass plate.

brassplateReferences to the use of white cotton gloves in libraries and archives date back to the early 20th century and by the 1980’s the use of white cotton gloves became a common practice for many archivists, curators, conservators and collections managers. As with all professions best practices do evolve. Today many museums have moved away from the use of cotton gloves preferring disposable nitrile gloves which also serve to protect staff members from hazardous materials (such as lead, cadmium, mold, arsenic etc.) found in collections. In some instances gloves are abandoned all together in favor of clean hands. This is especially applicable for very fragile artifacts including rare books, fragile paper, flaking paint or leather which can be damaged by sensitivity impaired gloved hands. The practice of wearing gloves is also avoided in situations where a firm grip provides the safest situation for an artifact as in the case of varnished wood, glazed ceramic or glass.

THF staff member Theresa Lakins wearing gloves while cleaning a historic textile in Noah Webster’s home in Greenfield Village.

Is there any “rule of thumb” that all museums should follow?

The truth is that there is no one rule of thumb that covers all collections and situations. Each museum makes decisions based upon a variety of criteria including budget for supplies, the size and types of collections as well as the condition of the artifacts.

Are there some things that all museum professionals agree upon?

Most museum professionals agree that uncoated metals, photographic prints, film and metallic glazed ceramics should not be handled with bare hands. Whenever possible stable porous materials such as textiles, leather, ivory, and bone, unglazed ceramics should be handled with gloves as long as they do not have any of the following condition problems: flaking, splintered, powdery, or otherwise fragile surfaces. In general books, thin or brittle paper items are not handled with gloves because they require extreme caution and manual dexterity to avoid creasing.

Cotton verses nitrile gloves

There are pros and cons to wearing different types of gloves. Disposable nitrile gloves are convenient but they can be expensive and are not eco-friendly. Cotton gloves can be washed as used for many years, but they are slippery and can serve as carriers for dirt, mold and hazardous materials. Thick leather work gloves protect handlers from slivered wood or jagged metal edges but do not allow for the high manual dexterity that is required to handle fragile artifacts or surfaces.

The Henry Ford’s Glove Guidelines:

Have been developed by staff conservators and are updated on a regular basis. General Guidelines are as follows:

Yes

  • Metals (except huge machines)
  • Lusterware or gilded ceramics
  • Unstable glass (nitrile only)
  • Most leather, textiles, ivory, bone, etc.
  • Rubber and early plastics
  • Photographs/film
  •  

    Not necessary for

  • Furniture (but avoid metal, veneer, carving, inlay & paint)
  • Paintings (for metal or gilded frames – gloves are advised)
  • Rugs
  • Books
  • Paper
  •  

    Learn more about current artifacts handling procedures

    A number of helpful artifact handling videos can be found on YouTube. The National Park Service video was funded by a federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

  • National Park Service Videos
  • Winterthur Museum and Gardens Videos
  • Minnesota Historical Society Videos
  •  

    Mary Fahey is Chief Conservator at The Henry Ford.

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