Cleaning Exhibit Objects on Open Display

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Objects on open display are subjected to airborne particulates that are abrasive, corrosive and generally detrimental. Removing this dust is an important part of routine maintenance.

What methods can be used to remove dust from objects on open display?

The methods for removing dust which are outlined below assume that the curatorial and conservation staff have approved the objects for open display and periodic dust removal. Always consult the documentation on an object beforehand for any specific instructions related to its maintenance. If objects are on loan or are part of a traveling exhibition, receive prior consent from the lending institution.

This TechNote only discusses removal of dust from objects on open display. Consult a conservator if additional treatment is required. Record each cleaning procedure in the maintenance log for the exhibition or on the object’s record card. Objects displayed in cases that are not well-sealed may also require dust removal: when deemed appropriate, the following instructions can be used after objects are removed from the case and located on an appropriate work table.
There are two methods for removing dust from the surfaces of objects, dusting and vacuuming. It is important that no commercial product be used on collection objects without the direct recommendation of a conservator. This caution includes all furniture polishes and dusting sprays.

  • Dust small objects, frames and intricate surfaces such as carvings with a fine soft-bristled brush of an appropriate size (natural-hair artists brushes, shaving brushes, natural-bristled paint brushes). Dust objects with smooth surfaces—such as ceramics and polished furniture—with Dust Bunny Magnetic Wiping Fabric by DuPont (Tyvek stitched with nylon) or its equivalent. To prevent the abrasive dust from scratching delicate surfaces, do not use pressure when dusting. Feather dusters are not approved for collection objects; the feathers catch in lifting surfaces, such as veneer, and scratch delicate surfaces.
  • Vacuum textiles, undecorated semi-tanned skins, baskets, and similar porous materials. Hold the nozzle above the surface; never drag the vacuum brush across the object. Keep the force of suction low; a vacuum with adjustable suction is recommended. Use attachments appropriate for the size of the object and wrap the attachment with polyester netting to prevent loose parts of the object from being drawn into the unit. High efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA) trap particles of a few microns in diameter, preventing the vacuum from exhausting back into the room. Small suction attachments can be constructed using flexible tubing inserted into a custom-made hose adapter.
  • A combination of theses two methods is often the most effective cleaning system for objects on open display. Particles loosened by a brush are directed into the suction flow of a vacuum nozzle. A high efficiency particulate (HEPA) vacuum cleaner is recommended because it traps finer dust particles that would otherwise redeposit onto the objects, and prevents the worker from inhaling fine, potentially toxic dust.


No matter which method is used, dust the object in a logical pattern. Start from one corner or the center and direct the work away from cleaned areas to prevent re-disposition of the dust. Support fragile or dangling parts of an object, for example by cupping in your hand or backing with a stiff paper-board. Dust with any "grain," for example dust with the direction of feather barbs, and along joins in object construction.

Can all objects be dusted or vacuumed safely?

Some surfaces including oil paintings, painted ethnographic objects, and any object with an oily surface cannot be dusted safely and will require advice from a conservator. When decorative elements on an object are extensive or very delicate, cleaning should be performed by a conservator. Highly deteriorated museum objects with lifting, flaking, powdery, or other surfaces fragile to the touch cannot be cleaned by routine procedures; open display of such objects should be reconsidered.

Foreign particles accumulated during a period of use that reflect the object's historical usage must be evaluated separately from those occurring during more recent storage or display. Disturbing an historical accumulation is often unwise. This distinction is sometimes difficult to make, requiring professional judgment. Allowance must also be made for the original patina of an object. This patina is the result of years of use and should be carefully preserved for informational as well as aesthetic reasons.

Polished metals may be cleaned prior to exhibition and maintaining a polish may be important visually for the exhibit. Most commercial silver, brass and other metal cleaners are not appropriate for museum use. A paste of precipitated calcium carbonate and alcohol makes a good, safe polish. It must be recognized that each cleaning removes some metal particles, in time wearing away the object’s surface. Buffing silver on open display (after it has been dusted) with a soft, dry cloth is an excellent way to prolong its polish.

Wet cleaning of textiles is a complicated process and must be discussed with a textile conservator. Many textiles can not be washed; many treatments will require the expertise of a textile conservator. Most textiles can be vacuumed as long as the brush does not touch the fabric; nylon or polypropylene screens can be used to separate the vacuum nozzle from contacting the fabric. Specialized high efficiency vacuums are generally recommended.

Products, Manufacturers, and Suppliers

Mention of a product, manufacturer, or supplier by name in this publication is for information only and does not constitute an endorsement of that product or supplier by the National Park Service. Listed materials have been used successfully in past applications. It is suggested that readers also seek alternate product and vendor information to assess the full range of available supplies and equipment.

  1. Dust Cloths - diaper cloth, terry cloth, linen, available at local fabric stores
    • DustBunny, Magnetic Wiping Cloths, Test Fabrics Inc.
  2. Precipitated Chalk - Precipitated calcium carbonate, available at general hardware stores
  3. High Efficiency (HEPA) Vacuum Cleaners
    • Vacuum Cleaner GS80, Nilfisk of America Inc.



Heath and Safety Technical Exchange: Lead Sucks-HEPA Saves and A Heap’o HEPA Information. Chris Stravrodis and Batyah Shtrum. Western Association for Art Conservation (WAAC) Newsletter Vol 19, No. 3. September 1997. pages 12-15.