Handling of any kind (including for research use or display purposes) puts objects at risk. In addition to being handled as little as possible, the time that objects are on display should be limited.
When handling is unavoidable, steps should be taken to make sure that proper handling methods are in use, including the use of appropriate gloves. Ensure that staff, volunteers, and patrons are adequately trained in handling collection materials. Take note of any damage, deterioration, previous repairs, or other vulnerabilities before handling objects. During handling, pick an item up underneath its center of gravity, never by its protruding elements (even if that protuberance is a handle). Before picking up an item, remove any additional pieces such as lids and pedestals, and carry those pieces separately. If objects are being transported more than a couple of feet, it is best to use a cart with proper padding and stabilization for the items on the cart.
Placing objects on display increases their risk of deterioration and damage. In addition to offering protection from dirt, dust, and other pollutants, exhibit enclosures should also create a physical barrier between objects and the public (to protect objects from being touched and to keep objects secure). Never allow objects on display to come in direct contact with the floor - mount objects so they are lifted off the floor. Care should be taken with exhibit lighting, and UV filters should be used to protect objects from undue light exposure. Avoid extended exposure to direct light by regulating light levels in an exhibit space and limiting the length of time an object is on exhibit. Whether on display or in storage, objects should be properly supported using inert and acid-free support materials. To learn more about handling, use, and display see the Use and Access and Exhibition Guidelines sections of the PSAP User Manual in the Collection ID Guide.
There is always some level of risk involved with placing objects on display, even if only for a limited time. In addition to ensuring that an item on exhibit is properly supported and secure, other considerations include maintaining good environmental conditions in exhibit spaces and protecting objects from excessive light exposure while they are on display. Objects should be adequately mounted and supported during exhibit. Some sources recommend using museum wax to affix items to their pedestals or exhibit displays, but wax may stain or leave an imprint on porous objects, including porous ceramics and stone. Instead of using museum wax, the best thing to do is provide proper support for the object using inert museum and archival quality materials. In addition to offering protection from dirt, dust, and other pollutants, exhibit enclosures should also create a physical barrier between objects and the public (to protect from being touched and also to keep secure). Never allow objects on display to come in direct contact with the floor - mount objects so they are lifted off the floor.
Care should be taken with exhibit lighting and UV filters should be used to protect objects from undue light exposure. Light damage is irreversible and accumulates gradually, so extended exposure to direct light must be avoided. Lighting levels in exhibit spaces should be regulated, and the length of time an object is on exhibit should be limited. When on display, objects should be protected from exposure to natural light, which contains high levels of UV radiation. Shades, curtains, or filters applied directly to windows will help to minimize sunlight. Natural light, fluorescents, and halogen lamps produce high UV radiation and will require filtering. Lighting should never be placed inside a display case, as it can create dangerous levels of light and heat for objects. It is wise to take the time to measure UV light intensity in a given space.
Items on display are particularly vulnerable to theft. It is necessary to modify displays and exhibits to minimize risk. At the very least, any valuable or rare items (particularly those that are easily picked up and transported) should be secured in locked cases/enclosures. To learn more about the risks associated with exhibiting objects, see the Exhibition Guidelines section of the PSAP User Manual in the Collection ID Guide.
Having good descriptive data and/or photographs of objects can reduce or eliminate researchers’ need to handle items, which will greatly reduce the risks to the objects. Detailed cataloging and photographs also help make materials searchable for administrative and collection development purposes. Without descriptive data capturing key characteristics, all materials are at greater risk of misidentification, misplacement, and improper care. Undocumented or poorly described collections can be especially vulnerable to theft, neglect, deterioration, improper storage, and deaccessioning. To learn more about the benefits of using a detailed catalog record, see the Use and Access section of the PSAP User Manual in the Collection ID Guide.
Training staff, volunteers, and even patrons on how to properly handle object materials is an important way to reduce possible damage associated with mishandling. In general, it is best to teach staff that fragile objects should be handled as little as possible. When handling is unavoidable hands should be clean and dry, and the appropriate gloves should be worn. Jewelry, accessories, or anything hanging around the neck or on clothing that could inadvertently come into contact with and damage materials should be removed or secured. Take note of any damage, deterioration, previous repairs, vulnerabilities before handling objects. During handling, pick an item up underneath its center of gravity, never by its protruding elements (even if that protuberance is a handle). Artifacts should never be handed from one person to another, but placed on a flat, stable surface so that a second person can pick it up. Before picking up an item, remove any additional pieces, such as lids and pedestals, and carry those pieces separately. If objects are being transported more than a couple of feet, it is best to use a cart with proper padding and stabilization for the items on the cart. To learn more about proper handling of objects, see Handling Objects in the Museum Objects in General section of the Collection ID Guide.
Different gloves are appropriate for different types of object materials, depending on the surface and softness of that material. If handling slippery and/or fragile glass or ceramic objects, nitrile and vinyl gloves are recommended over cotton gloves. If the glass or ceramic object is stable and not soft, cotton gloves with friction dots can help improve grip. Fingerprints can stain metals, so it is absolutely necessary to wear gloves of some kind when handling metal objects! It is always best to use clean gloves that fit and are free of holes or tears.
Consider the following when selecting gloves:
To learn more about gloves, see Handling & Preparation in the Exhibition Guidelines section of the PSAP User Manual in the Collection ID Guide.
No matter the shape, size, or material, objects and their parts must be properly supported in storage to prevent damage. Supports and cushions can protect and prevent items from moving or tipping in storage. Supports can be fashioned from polyethylene foam or acid-free tissue. Adequate cushions can be made out of materials as simple as Styrofoam packing peanuts in a plastic bag. Using supports underneath flat, oversize, or awkwardly-shaped objects can help handlers get a better grip underneath flat objects. Smaller items can also be stored in 2 mil or 4 mil polyethylene re-closable bags (fragments, particularly glass fragments, should always be kept in 4 ml re-closable polyethylene bags or boxes to minimize the risks of their causing damage to other objects). To learn more about object storage, see Storage of Objects in the Museum Objects in General section of the Collection ID Guide.
In general, objects should not be stored on shelving made of uncoated wood or anything that will off-gas. On the shelves and inside cabinets, there should be a buffer layer (a layer of acid-free tissue paper or polyethylene foam) between the shelf and the objects. Supports and cushioning fashioned from archival-grade/inert materials can also be used to protect and prevent items from moving or tipping in storage. Storage trays and boxes should also be made from archival-grade paperboard. Smaller items can be stored in 2 mil or 4 mil polyethylene re-closable bags.
Objects should not be stacked unless absolutely necessary, but if stacking is unavoidable, a layer of inert foam or acid-free tissue should be placed in between objects to avoid damage from contact. If open shelving is being used for object storage, items can be placed in archival boxes or acid-free tissue can be draped or wrapped around items to minimize dust accumulation and reduce the need for cleaning. Shelves should not wobble and drawers should have safety mechanisms so they cannot slide out all the way. Because objects can be heavy, care must be taken to ensure that shelving is in good repair and can support their weight. Do not store large items that do not fit on the shelves directly on the floor -- use risers to prevent the item from coming in contact with the floor.
Uncoated wood storage furniture should generally be avoided, but metal objects in particular should not be stored in unpainted wooden boxes, on unpainted wooden shelving, or near wood pulp or wooden materials (unpainted wood releases acetic acid which can cause metals to corrode over time). If choosing to store objects on or near painted wood, avoid oil-based and alkyd paints. Donated object materials may arrive in inappropriate enclosures (for example, regional museums often receive donations of archaeological projectile points in portable “exhibit boxes” that are made of wood). At the very least, collections that are received in improper housings should be removed from the detrimental enclosures and rehoused using archival quality/acid-free enclosures.
To learn more about object storage, see Storage of Objects in the Museum Objects in General section of the Collection ID Guide.
Large object materials, particularly those made of dense stone, can be heavy (and are sometimes heavier than they look!). Care must be taken to ensure that shelving can support the weight of large/heavy objects. Heavy objects should only be stored on shelves that are easily accessible -- ideally at waist- or cart-level, so that they are less difficult to retrieve from shelves. Use an adequate number of people and adequate carts to transport stone objects. Never let the width of an object protrude past the width of a shelf. Do not store large items that do not fit on the shelves directly on the floor -- use risers to prevent the item from coming in contact with the floor. To learn more about object storage, see Storage of Objects in the Museum Objects in General section of the Collection ID Guide.
Theft is a real threat, both when collections are on display and when items are in storage. It is necessary for every institution to implement and maintain a comprehensive security program to ensure the safety of employees, visitors, and the artifacts. At the very least, the rooms, furniture, and/or cases in which object materials are kept should be secured/locked, and access to those areas (or to keys to those areas) should be tracked and limited. Keys should be issued strictly on an as-needed basis. There is no reason for every staff or board member to have the key(s) to the storage areas or display cases, for instance.
Items on display are particularly vulnerable to theft. Be aware of placement and visibility in your space when designing exhibits. Objects that are often targets of theft include small objects that are easy to conceal in clothing (projectile points, for example). Metal objects (i.e., coins) and other items that are perceived as particularly “valuable” are also at high risk for theft. It is necessary to modify displays and exhibits to minimize risk. Any valuable or rare items, particularly those that are easily picked up and transported (and are therefore at higher risk), should be secured in locked cases/enclosures. To learn more about security, see Security in the Disaster Preparedness section of the PSAP User Manual in the Collection ID Guide.
While different metals and metal alloys react differently to their environments - in general metals will react in some way to moisture and other environmental factors. How metal objects react depends on the type of metal(s) an object is made of, the past life of the item (it’s past environment), whether it is already displaying signs of corrosion, and how it is being handled and stored now. High-humidity (over 65%) environments will corrode metals!
Metals that have been buried will be corroded with either thick layers that form a crust on the surface of the metal, or thinner more regular layers of corrosion. Typical archaeological metals include iron (wrought and cast), copper and copper alloys (brass and bronze), zinc, lead, and tin. The type and color of corrosion may give clues as to the type of metal beneath (e,g., copper corrosion is typically blue/green, while iron corrosion is usually yellow/brown/orange in color). Whether on archaeological or non-archaeological metals, heavy corrosion can compromise the structural integrity of the metal, causing pieces to flake, chip, or break off. Depending on the severity of the damage and/or deterioration, the object may be difficult or impossible to handle for research and/or display purposes, without causing more injury to the item. Read more about metal in the Collection ID Guide.
While breaking, cracking, and other structural damage does not always indicate that an object is unstable (an object can be broken, but can still be considered in “good condition” or stable), structural damage can sometimes create weak points that are more vulnerable to additional damage, particularly if the item is handled. Cracks and breaks can also signal deterioration caused by chemical damage that has weakened the material structure of an item. Severe structural damage can compromise the integrity of the item, and may need added support or padding in storage to keep damage from worsening. Fragments and items with pieces missing may also need additional support to ensure that undue pressure is not placed on broken parts and that the item does not move or tip. Refer to Objects in General and Object Materials in the Collection ID Guide for more information on structural damage.
Failing previous repairs endanger the structural integrity of an object, and residue from old repairs can also cause damage (i.e., staining, delamination). Many repairs are visible under blacklight (UV), but many will also be visible to the naked eye. Materials used for previous repairs may have become unstable: old adhesives can discolor or become brittle, and metal or wooden splints and staples used to hold breaks may have degraded. Objects with previous repairs should be treated as highly fragile --- not only has the stability of an item been compromised by the original break, but aging adhesives, staples, and other fillers such as plaster of paris can continue to endanger the stability of the object. Degraded previous repairs can also stain or otherwise damage nearby materials, including other artifacts. Consult a conservator if you are concerned about the stability of a previous repair. Never attempt to reverse previous repairs without the assistance of an expert! More information about can be found in Adhesives in the Supplementary section of the Collection ID Guide.
Visible residue from previous use or accumulated material on the surface of an item should not be cleaned or removed, even to view the surface beneath. These residues may be useful for purposes of research and, if removed, can harm or seriously destabilize the object. An expert should be consulted if removal of previous residue is considered absolutely necessary.
Residue might take the form of active corrosion or damage. If this is the case, place the item in a microclimate (container) to slow deterioration and talk to a conservator about ways to prevent further deterioration. Residue from functional use, such as melted wax on candlesticks, is often preserved to secure the historical value of that item, but is occasionally removed by a conservation professional at the discretion of the institution. Cleaning museum objects is rarely recommended for non-experts, as damage often occurs as a result of inadvertent mishandling during cleaning. However, objects should be kept dust-free, so that accumulating dust does not cause further damage. Read more in Previous Residue in the Museum Objects in General section of the Collection ID Guide.
When assessing the exposure of your collections to biological organisms, it is necessary to look not just at the materials themselves and their containers, but also at the larger environment. High humidity in collection spaces promotes the growth of biological agents (like mold and lichens) and insect infestation, both of which can cause permanent damage. Even inorganic object materials can be susceptible to mold, which may appear as fuzzy/downy patches in a variety of colors (often black, grey, or white). Mold can permeate the surface of the stone and create mechanical and chemical damage. Mold can also grow on enclosures and support materials that are in contact with museum objects.
Objects that were once buried, like archaeological glass, may exhibit growth of mosses or lichens. It is unlikely that these growths attack the glass directly, but moisture is often trapped between the growth and the surface layer, which can contribute to deterioration. Additionally, mosses, lichens, mold, and fungi may grow on stone. Lichens are aggressive weathering agents with the ability to penetrate the stone deeply. On stone, lichens may appear as grey, yellow, orange, green, or black round patches with a soft/powdery/leathery appearance. Lichen’s tendency to expand and contract in response to changes in humidity can weaken and damage the surface of stone.
Pests, like insects and rodents like the paper-based materials that may be used to house objects. Insects and rodents tend to leave droppings in areas they inhabit. Insects leave behind a substance called frass, which is the undigested fibers from paper. If you see droppings and/or frass in the storage area, it is a strong sign that your materials are being exposed to pests. Small, irregular holes on paper-based enclosures are also a sign that pests have attacked your materials.
Some tips for reducing your materials' exposure to pests are to refrain from eating anywhere near your collections materials. Crumbs draw pests, so eat far from your collections. Another tip applying to both pests and mold is to be cautious about donated materials when you receive them. Pests and mold can hitch a ride into your facility on these materials, so having a good, clean staging area where you can inspect donated items for, among other things, pest and mold evidence can help you reduce your storage environments' exposure to both.
Dust and dirt that accumulate in the cavities of coarse surfaces and/or surfaces with etching, engraving, or other surface treatments can damage object materials. Dust is hygroscopic and will attract additional dust and dirt to the area, which can cause further damage. Accumulated dust and dirt can stain porous materials like some stone and ceramics. Dust that accrues on metal objects will retain moisture from the air, which may contain sulphur compounds or chlorides that can tarnish or accelerate corrosion of the metal.
Objects, particularly those with areas on the surface in which dust and dirt are likely to collect, should be placed in closed shelving, boxes, and/or covered with acid-free tissue to prevent dust buildup and reduce the need for handling while cleaning. Storage areas should be kept clean and free of dust.
In general, metals will react to moisture and other environmental factors, but the appearance and effect of the reaction will depend on the type of metal(s) an object is made of, it’s previous life/environment, and its current environment. Typically, metals that have been buried or exposed to the elements will be corroded with either thick layers that form a crust on the surface of the metal, or thinner more regular layers of corrosion.
Metal corrosion can be stable (not getting worse) or active (fresh, new, and/or worsening). Corrosion appears in different colors depending on the type of metal. Copper, polished brass, silver can tarnish black, while tin and aluminum may tarnish white or grey. More serious corrosion on copper alloys like copper will appear green (i.e., “bronze disease”). Some iron alloys, specifically wrought iron and cast iron, often display orange corrosion (rust) in response to moisture. Archaeological iron and iron alloys may exhibit extreme corrosion that results in flaking or delamination of metal from the object. The type and color of corrosion may give clues as to the type of metal beneath. Whether on archaeological or non-archaeological metals, heavy corrosion can compromise the structural integrity of the metal, causing pieces to flake, chip, or break off. Read more about metal in the Collection ID Guide.
Lead is toxic to humans when absorbed through the skin, when lead fumes are inhaled, and when it is ingested. Lead is stored in the human body and is cumulative. Lead and lead compounds are probable carcinogens and can cause lead poisoning. Lead fumes are particularly dangerous.
Extreme care should be taken when dealing with lead artifacts! Always wear gloves when handling lead and take caution not to touch other things with gloves that have come in contact with lead! Even metal objects that may potentially contain lead should be treated with caution.
Lead is a dull silver-grey metal. It is sometimes added to other alloys, such as pewter. It can also be alloyed with tin to make solder, which is used to join pieces of metals together. Read more about lead in the Collection ID Guide.