Guideline 3.1

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Back to complete list of STANDARD 3: Collections Care Practices

Guideline 3.1:
Objects are handled as little as possible and team members practice safe handling at all times
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What are the risks when handling objects?

There are numerous occasions that could prompt exhibit team members to handle objects during an exhibit’s development. However, each instance of handling increases the chances of breakage, tearing and physical stress, and therefore should be kept to the minimum possible.
The way an object is handled impacts not only its immediate but also its long-term condition. Foreign substances that contaminate an object’s materials soil the object and can accelerate deterioration. Perspiration from the touch of a finger, for example, can deposit oil and salt, sulfur, acids, and other chemicals on an object’s surface; a pen or pencil used to outline a dress in template-making can leave ink or pencil lead behind.
Safe handling requires care as well as an understanding of the materials and construction of the object; mostly, however, it requires common sense.

What protocols can ensure that objects are handled safely?

Object handling is limited, whenever possible, to those individuals on the exhibit team with prior knowledge of collections care and object handling practices.
Team members needing to see an object should notify the appropriate staff member (exhibit coordinator/registrar/curator) in advance so that the object can be prepared for handling. Ideally, experienced museum staff should handle exhibit objects as the team needs.
The exhibit conservator or curator provides handling instructions or training to anyone who will handle an object during the exhibit process. Certain team members such as the exhibit planner, designer and exhibit installer will necessarily have contact with exhibit objects and should be especially aware of safe handling practices. The mountmaker and photographer may also have frequent contact with exhibit objects and should be especially diligent in their handling practices.
Safe handling procedures are written up and provided to all members of the team to follow since each person who comes into contact with an exhibit object has potential to damage it.
Objects are stored in appropriately-sized containers so that the container rather than the object is handled.

General guidelines for safe object handling

The following guidelines are not comprehensive; they are intended to provide a general introduction to handling diverse objects during an exhibit’s development. The conservator should provide handling recommendations (preferably in writing) tailored to the specific exhibit objects once these have been selected.
Avoid unnecessary handling of artifacts. Damage is possible each time an object is moved. Use scale drawings or photographs of the objects to reduce handling when deciding on arrangement.
Prepare an appropriate surface to examine or work with an object. Choose a table away from heating and air conditioning ducts, direct sunlight, areas of heavy traffic, and sources of drafts such as doorways. Prepare a surface on which to place the object by laying down clean acid-free paper, clean inert foam, or a clean table pad.
Handle each object with an equal level of concern. It is inappropriate to make personal judgments about the value of any object.
Handle one object at a time, using both hands to support or cradle the object. Do not hold anything else, even a pencil or measuring tape.
Support the entire object. It is preferable not to lift an object directly, but rather to lift it while supported in a tray, drawer or plinth. For example, place paper artifacts on an acid-free board and handle the board. Place textile garments in a carrying box.
Do not pick up an object by a protruding part, such as a rim or handle; avoid lifting furniture by a chair arm, or table top.
Keep the object over a protective surface, such as a table. Cup one hand beneath a small object in case it slips from your grasp. Locate objects away from table edges, but within easy reach.
Rest the object on its most stable surface (often its widest surface) and one without flaking or attachments.
Never drag or push an object across a surface, even a padded worktable. To reposition, pick up the object with both hands. Do not allow any part to hang or extend over an edge such as a tray, notebook or table ledge.
Do not force an object to open, a lid to come off, or an object to move in an attempt to see how it once functioned. Consult with a conservator to observe its flexibility or functionality.
Wear clean gloves when handling objects such as metal, textiles, porous ceramics, baskets, ethnographic collections, paper, and photographs.
Wear gloves with appropriate texture to hold slick objects since gloves can be too slippery to hold slick objects such as high-fired ceramics and glass.
Use bare hands only as necessary for handling slick objects. Wash your hands often to prevent oils, sulfur, acids, and other chemicals present in your skin, as well as dirt from the objects themselves, from becoming embedded in the surface of the artifact you are handling. Do not use skin lotion.
Ensure nothing will brush across or scratch the object while you are examining or moving it. Remove jewelry and roll up shirt cuffs. Remove tools from shirt and pockets.
Always use pencil, not pen, to take notes. Ink is difficult, if not impossible, to remove from objects.
Never touch an object with a pencil or pen. Do not trace an object. Straight pins may be used to outline an object.
Do not use the object or its storage folder as a flat surface on which to take notes.
Never place anything on top of an object except for clean tissue paper or polyethylene sheeting as a dust cover. Do not rest tape measures, rulers or magnifiers directly on an object.
Always take careful notes so that an object need only be measured once.
Preserve documentation. Keep all labels and documents with an object unless instructed differently by the museum curator or registrar.
Use "OBJECT BELOW" signs to alert other staff members if objects must be left out on a table or open shelving.

What objects may need specific handling instructions?

Different materials call for different handling techniques. The team should therefore be aware of the various component materials of each exhibit object so as to select the appropriate method for handling it. The following guidelines are not comprehensive; they are intended to illustrate the different precautions that might be called for. For example:
Paper and photographs. To lift up a paper or photograph, slide a piece of acid-free paper beneath a strong, undamaged corner. Never fold, bend, or crease paper; keep the sheet flat. Handle photographs along the edges; avoid touching the image area. Clean gloves should be worn.
Ethnographic objects are often structurally fragile. Wads of tissue paper or fabric-covered pillows may be necessary to support the object evenly and avoid stressing natural fibers and weak adhesives. The surface and applied elements are often friable or prone to misalignment. Make sure the area you are handling is not powdery or flaking. Provide ample room and support to prevent crushing feathers, fur, matting, and other attachments.
Garments. Do not try on garments or accessories. If a three-dimensional form is used, it must be sized to support the garment without stressing its seams. However, in some cases the fabric or seams may be too deteriorated for the garment to be fitted on a mannequin or other padded support. The team should consult a conservator for recommendations.
Paintings. When handling paintings, be careful not to touch the painted surface or the back of the canvas. Use a smooth motion so that the canvas does not flex on the stretcher. Large paintings must always be handled by two people and should be transported on an appropriate cart. Carry a small painting by both sides of the frame or with one hand on the bottom and the other on an adjacent side, never by the top member or the hanging hardware

What types of objects could present health hazards when handled?

Exhibit team members should be aware of collection objects that could present a health hazard. Examples include:
Objects that are radioactive should be regarded as hazardous. These include radioactive geological specimens as well as a broad array of manmade items such as fiesta ware, many ceramic glazes, clock dials, and mechanical equipment.
Objects that are composed of hazardous materials such as lead sculpture or cloth that includes asbestos fibers.
Mounted natural history specimens may have been treated with dangerous insecticides (such as arsenic, DDT, mercuric compounds etc.).
Textiles may have been treated with dangerous insecticides (such as arsenic, DDT, mercuric compounds etc.).
Ethnographic objects may have been treated with dangerous insecticides (such as arsenic, DDT, mercuric compounds etc.). Certain ethnographic objects, such as spears and arrow tips, may have been treated by their users with poisonous substances.
Organic objects that were exposed to excessive levels of moth crystals (PDB—para dichlorobenzene) often absorb the pesticide then continue to emit the substance.

Handling Recommendations for objects that present possible health hazards:

Always read the object’s accessioning information and consult the appropriate authorities where necessary.
For suspect objects, take extra precautions. Use protective gear such as special synthetic gloves and a respirator. Change gloves often to avoid contaminating the surrounding environment. Bag suspect objects.