Using Exhibit Props

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Non-collection props within an exhibit can be serve an important interpretive function. Such props must be carefully chosen to avoid potential harm to collection objects displayed in the same vicinity.

How are props used in exhibits?

Exhibit props enhance the visitor's experience by simulating a setting or an experience, and by placing an object in context or illustrating its use. Props may be used to:

  • create special effects or backdrops;
  • recreate lifelike settings;
  • provide additional contextual objects for interpretive/educational reasons.


In general, props are considered expendable visual aids and are usually natural materials or fabricated from commonly available, inexpensive materials. Because of their training in material science, a conservator can advise on products, suggest alternatives, and predict some potential problems. Common types of props are:

  • foodstuffs, both crude and prepared;
  • vegetal matter such as crops, leaf litter and botanical specimens;
  • animal specimens;
  • landscaping materials such as rock, pebbles, sand and dirt and imitation water;
  • furniture, textiles and other domestic items;
  • building facades, interiors, and walkways.

What are the major preservation concerns to consider when choosing a prop?

Contaminated or poor quality prop materials can cause biological, physical, or chemical deterioration of nearby collection objects. Potential for damage increases when the prop is in close proximity to, or is enclosed with, a collection object. Limit potential damage by following a few basic guidelines.

  1. Use stable materials as exhibit props. Chemically unstable or moist materials corrode or stain adjacent collection objects. Particular problems are: moisture from poorly prepared or wet vegetal matter; chlorides, plasticizers and anti-static additives from plastic products; and unstable or migratory dyes.
    • Use exhibit prop materials based on stable classes of materials.
    • Know the compatibility of materials, for example the sulfur in fur would make the use of animal pelts as a display surface for silver coins inappropriate.
    • Research additives to a product, including plasticizers and surface finishes that may be harmful.
    • Wash any dyed material; if washing is impractical, isolate the material from the collection objects with a physical barrier or a mount.
  2. Guard against infestation. Animal products, wood and vegetal matter, wool, and preserved foods may introduce an infestation into the museum.
    • Inspect all materials before bringing them into the museum.
    • Fumigate or freeze the material before introduction, if in doubt.
    • Avoid the problem by using reproduction botanical models, or freeze-dried vegetal materials where possible.
  3. Use clean, sterile prop materials. Friable materials such as rocks, sand, and wood chips introduce substantial dust and debris that will deposit on collection objects and recirculate through the HVAC system.
    • Prop materials should always be clean, corrosion-free, and otherwise stable materials
    • Screen and(or) wash materials to remove small particles and reduce the overall amount of dust associated with these materials.
    • Do not use old materials that are in poor condition.
    • Reduce the amount of material needed by using inert fillers such as blocks of polyethylene foam, or by building a platform on which the material can be laid.
  4. Isolate the prop material from the collection. Some prop materials present a physical danger to collection objects. Sand, for example, can abrade objects and plastic-based materials, such as imitation snow, are electrostatically attracted to fur, ceramics and many other materials. In addition, some prop materials, including damp vegetal matter, can introduce moisture and acidity.
    • Never allow collection objects to touch a prop. Polyester films, polyethylene sheeting, and tailor-made mounts can be used to isolate collection objects from a prop.
    • Enclose loose material to prevent transfer to other areas and to discourage vandalism; for example place polyester netting over vegetal material to help contain the small particles.