Thursday, August 23, 2012

Handling Artifacts

     Usually the displays and storage areas of a museum are designed to prevent people from touching the artifacts.  This is for the safety of the artifacts and for our visitors.  There are times that artifacts must be handled though - displays are changed or artifacts need to be inspected, cleaned, conserved, or photographed.  So, how are the artifacts protected when they are handled?

     Here are some guidelines I keep in mind when handling and moving artifacts: 

Accidents can happen to even the most careful person – For obvious reasons this means no eating, drinking, chewing gum, or smoking near the artifacts.  For the same reason, if you need to fill out paperwork involved with the move, do not use ink pens or markers near artifacts. 

Know your artifact – Before moving any artifact, take a moment to inspect it and to note any areas of concern – broken or weak spots, lids which could fall off, drawers which could fall out, other contents which could fall out, etc.  Be sure the item is supported well when you pick it up; most times it is better to hold an item by the base and side rather than by a handle which could break.
It is good to take notice of things like this broken handle on the medical pannier before trying to lift it.

Faster is not better – Move slowly and deliberately when working with artifacts.  In my experience (and probably yours too), most accidents occur when you are distracted or trying to hurry.  Take your time! 

Plan your route - When moving artifacts, even if simply from a cabinet to a nearby work table, know where you are going beforehand, and have both the path and the destination cleared.  You do not want to trip over anything on the way, nor do you want to have to take a hand off the artifact in order to clear a place to put it down.

Cleanliness matters – Be sure your hands and clothing are clean and dry.  Dirt, oil, and moisture from your hands or clothes can be transferred to the artifact you are handling.  Also, wear gloves when appropriate.  My rule for gloves is to wear cotton gloves when handling textiles, wood, metal, leather, books, and photos.  I wear nitrile or latex gloves when handling any items which may contain hazardous materials, and for some glass items.  Glass, ceramics, and paper can generally be handled with clean, dry hands, but if gloves are needed for glass or ceramics I like the latex ones better because they provide a bit more grip.  It’s just too easy for glass to slip through those cotton gloves!
Here’s the museum’s director, George Wunderlich, wearing some white cotton gloves to handle some bone specimens. 

I chose to wear latex gloves when handling a mummified arm, since I didn’t know what chemicals had been used to preserve it. This protected me against any harmful materials in the arm and protected the arm from any dirt and oils on my hands.

Don’t try to be Superman! – Get help if you will need it.  Get help even if you think you MIGHT need it.  This does not mean just for the very heavy items, but for anything which may be awkward for just one person to carry.  Even if you don’t need assistance carrying the item, it can be helpful to have someone who can warn you of unexpected obstacles in your path, open doors for you, or clear people out of your way.
Here you can see an ambulance being delivered to the Pry House Field Hospital Museum barn. It was definitely more than a one-person job! Kyle and Tom were both on hand to assist with the unloading.

Have the proper attire – Avoid wearing anything which could catch on, snag, or scratch the artifact, or which could block your view of the artifact.  Tie back long hair, remove ties, scarves, or dangly jewelry, and avoid wearing large rings, pins, or belt buckles.  Wearing a lab coat can be helpful in some situations; it can protect your clothing as well as the artifacts you handle.

     Though it may seem like a lot to have to remember, it is all worth it to protect the artifacts!    


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.


  1. Lori, I have some Army Navy Journals from 1865. They are kept in a drawer and are beginning to fall apart. What should I do to preserve them??

  2. An acid-free storage box would be best, as it would protect them from exposure to dust, light, and pests (to some degree). I would recommend placing each journal in its own acid-free folder, or putting sheets of acid-free tissue between them, and placing them flat in the box. They should also be kept in the main part of your home, not the attic or basement. You want to avoid exposing them to high temperatures and humidity levels, as these accelerate the chemical reactions that cause embrittlement, discoloration, and mold growth on paper. You also want to check on them occasionally to be sure that no pests are munching on them!