Dust and Housekeeping

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Dust and Housekeeping

Contributors: Katherine Miromonti

Housekeeping and the mitigation of dust are crucial for maintaining the structural and aesthetic integrity of artworks, objects, and historic houses. While dust on historic objects and in historic homes is acceptable to a certain degree, it poses potential dangers to objects and surfaces. Some of the effects of dust include [1]:

  • Abrasion from large or sharp particles
  • Chemical damage from organic or acidic particles
  • Damage from trapped moisture or mold growth
  • Unsightliness or obscuration of aesthetic or design properties


The removal of dust can contribute to further damage of an object or surface and the cost of cleaning is extremely high; therefore, most conservators advocate for measures to prevent dust from accumulating [2]. In order to do this, practical and comprehensive standards for housekeeping and cleanliness must be established.

Generally, there are two types of cleaning: less-skilled and specialized. Less-skilled cleaning may be done by maintenance staff and/or untrained volunteers [3]. This type of work includes [4,5]:

  • Daily vacuuming of floors, mats, and druggets
  • Regular dusting of furniture with cotton dusters or other appropriate materials
  • Periodic cleaning of windowsills, filtration systems, and other areas where dirt enters a building


Specialized cleaning should always be done by a trained conservator. Conservators should handle fragile or deteriorating items on display and clean them with specialized tools. These items should be cleaned only when necessary, as frequent cleaning of fragile objects can cause further damage. The cleaning of fragile items should be done with clean hands and gloves [6].

In general, dust can be removed from items with a cloth, soft-bristled brush, or vacuum. Untreated soft cotton or synthetic microfiber cloths are recommended for cleaning. Soft, natural-hair brushes should be used for cleaning and will often be used in conjunction with a vacuum. High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) vacuums are preferable for most situations because they prevent small particles from escaping through the exhaust. Vacuums with adjustable suctions and detachable nozzles of various sizes are good for working on a variety of objects and surfaces [7].

Dust atlases (e.g. The Identification of Dust in Historic Houses) and dust monitoring kits are also useful tools for conservators. These resources are used to determine the frequency and effectiveness of cleaning methods [8].

Aside from cleaning, other practices that institutions can use to mitigate the accumulation of dust include [9, 10, 11]:

  • Placing industrial mats or druggets at museum and historic house entrances
  • Installing effective dust filtration systems and ensuring they are regularly cleaned (e.g. HVAC)
  • Placing sensitive objects in air-tight cases, behind glass or acrylic barriers, and as far away from visitor pathways as possible
  • Establishing regular cleaning schedules to track what is cleaned and the date. It should include a list of acceptable cleaning supplies and suitable equipment
  • Utilizing timed tickets to stagger visitor activity in rooms or exhibits
  • Utilizing coat checks to limit the amount of outside debris brought into exhibits
  • Encouraging visitor support for preventative care and protection of art and historic objects


References

[1] Levitan, Alan. 2002. “Dusting Wood Objects.” Conserve O Gram, 7/5: 1-4. https://www.nps.gov/museum/publications/conserveogram/07-05.pdf

[2] Lloyd, Helen, Peter Brimblecombe, Katy Lithgow. 2007. “Economics of Dust.” Studies in Conservation, 52(2): 135–146. https://doi.org/10.1179/sic.2007.52.2.135

[3] Lloyd, Helen, Peter Brimblecombe, Katy Lithgow. 2007. “Economics of Dust.” Studies in Conservation, 52(2): 135–146. https://doi.org/10.1179/sic.2007.52.2.135

[4] Poling, Lesley, Jessica Mayercin. 2014. “Historic Housekeeping.” Ohio History Connection. https://www.ohiolha.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Historic_Housekeeping.pdf

[5] Lloyd, Helen, Peter Brimblecombe, Katy Lithgow. 2007. “Economics of Dust.” Studies in Conservation, 52(2): 135–146. https://doi.org/10.1179/sic.2007.52.2.135

[6] Lloyd, Helen, Peter Brimblecombe, Katy Lithgow. 2007. “Economics of Dust.” Studies in Conservation, 52(2): 135–146. https://doi.org/10.1179/sic.2007.52.2.135

[7] Poling, Lesley, Jessica Mayercin. 2014. “Historic Housekeeping.” Ohio History Connection. https://www.ohiolha.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Historic_Housekeeping.pdf

[8] Lloyd, Helen, C.M. Grossi, Peter Brimblecombe. 2011. “Low-technology dust monitoring for historic collections.” Journal of the Institute of Conservation 34(1): 104-114. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19455224.2011.566131.

[9] Lithgow, Katy, Helen Lloyd, Peter Brimblecombe, Y. H. Yoon, and David Thickett. 2005. “Managing Dust in Historic Houses: A Visitor/Conservator Interface.” ICOMCommittee for Conservation preprints. 14th Triennial Meeting, The Hague 2: 662-669.

[10] Levitan, Alan. 2002. “Dusting Wood Objects.” Conserve O Gram, 7/5: 1-4. https://www.nps.gov/museum/publications/conserveogram/07-05.pdf

[11] Lloyd, Helen, Peter Brimblecombe, Katy Lithgow. 2007. “Economics of Dust.” Studies in Conservation, 52(2): 135–146. https://doi.org/10.1179/sic.2007.52.2.135


Further Reading and Resources

How to Brush Vacuum an Object (MAAS)
Library and Archive Collections Housekeeping
Cleaning Practices (Minnesota Historical Society)