Museum Object Handling

October 13, 2009


Blogs need images!  This is on exhibit at Ernie's Old Time Saloon in Sitka, Alaska.  Photo courtesy of Lauren Horelick.

Blogs need images! This is on exhibit at Ernie's Old Time Saloon in Sitka, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Lauren Horelick.

This is the document for the hour-long training I give incoming staff, volunteers, and interns at the Alaska State Museum.  I elaborate with real-life stories I have from experience or hear from colleagues to illustrate each point during the training.  This version fits on the back and front of a single sheet of paper.


TOOLS and JEWELRY should be removed from body, pockets, and nearby.  Rings, watches, belt buckles, and tools in pockets can scrape artifacts.  Pulling back long hair and removing scarves prevents entanglement in artifacts, too.

GLOVES are the default standard.  Occasional exceptions: gloves can reduce dexterity when handling thin paper or glass, and cotton can leave fibers on textiles or snag some surfaces. Nitrile can offer more dexterity than cotton.  Large sizes may be more comfortable.

PUBLIC should always see you wearing gloves.  Never leave objects unattended in public areas, even if area is blocked off.

EXAMINE before you pick it up.  Consider weight, broken elements, center of gravity, loose parts. Old age changes stability.  Examination will take longer earlier in your career as you develop your senses regarding fragility of objects.  Ask about damage you see.  This protects you from mistaken liability too. 

PLAN AHEAD a clear path, open doors, and safe destination to set object down again.  This is the most-overlooked of all object handling rules.

CARTS are the safest way to move artifacts.  Steering is usually easier on one end.  Pads help objects remain stable. Beware floor transitions (elevator!)

CARRY objects in a box or tray for more control.  Boxes on carts are an excellent way to move artifacts.

TWO hands for carrying, even for small artifacts. Don’t hand off to another person… set object down first for the other person to pick up. (exception: handing item to person on a ladder)

LARGE items may need two people, or even a third spotter.

FRAMED?  Carry with one hand below frame, one hand on side (not by the wire).  Don’t touch back / front of canvas.  The damage may not show for years.



WORK SURFACES should be clear of pens, markers, liquids, tools, tape, hot lights, etc.  Pencils are always preferred.  Work surfaces for artifacts are separate from other activities, such as unpacking or keeping lists.

MEASURING?  Use a plastic or cloth tape whenever possible.  If you must use a ruler or tape measure, use extra caution.

FLOOR?  Not even for a moment!  Use foam or padding if only for a moment.  Items on the floor are at high risk for flood damage, bumping with carts, kicking, tripping, contractor damage etc.

STACKING (paper, photos, and textiles only, not objects) can be done for short stacks that are always to be carried flat and level with acid-free materials in between each item.

DAMAGE must be reported to the conservator (breakage, loose parts, bugs etc.)  If possible, leave it as is until conservator can see it.  Do not attempt to fix or alter damage you see.  If you see a live bug, capture it on a piece of tape for identification.

CLEANING is a conservation treatment.  Do not clean objects unless instructed.  Achieving an overall even level of cleaning can be tricky.  Some “dirt” also has historical significance.  Cleaning is irreversible.

SEARCH padding and packing materials carefully to avoid losing parts.  Discarding dirty packing materials is important, but check thoroughly first.  Beware black plastic trash bags…artifacts can be mistaken for trash!

COVER objects left out overnight and leave a note, such as “ART BELOW.”  Dust/light/water/asbestos etc.  Tyvek offers lightweight covering while repelling water.



SLOW DOWN!  If there is a speed urgency, something is already going wrong. Don’t make it worse by rushing.

PATIENCE when accessing things stacked, in the back of shelves, or in drawers without stoppers.  Don’t yank something out of the bottom of a pile, or lift objects over other objects if it can be avoided.

FOCUS on the task at hand.  Minimize chatter and take a break if fatigued.

TOXIC? Mounts with arsenic, some metal corrosion, dusts/pollens/molds/allergens.  Gloves protect you as well as the artifact.  Good to wash your hands.  Mention if you feel unwell.

NUMBERS & NOTES must not be separated from artifacts.  Duplicate if necessary.

DON’T TEST IT OUT.  Objects should not be fidgeted with, caressed, or fondled.  Includes instruments, machines, fitting together broken edges etc.  This is consumptive use.  Note opportunistic touching damage in exhibits and train your eye to see the harmful effects.

EVERY object in our collection or on loan counts, even if it is ugly or broken. We have public trust responsibility and an ethical responsibility to protect anything with a catalog or loan number.


Anatomy of an Archives Flood

October 13, 2009
Alaska State Archives and Records Management Building.  Photo by Damon Stuebner
Alaska State Archives and Records Management Building. Photo by Damon Stuebner

In the wee hours of August 17th 2009, rainwater flooded the collections of the Alaska State Archives in Juneau.  The following is the timeline of events, challenges, and insights compiled the following week and discussed at a group debriefing.


Ellen Carrlee, Conservator, Alaska State Museum


Sunday August 16: Rainstorm with considerable wind.

Monday August 17: Rainstorm continued with 1.8” of rain.  Cruise ship Pacific Princess with about 600 passengers skipped Juneau port of call because weather is too severe to safely hold anchor.  Montana Creek threatened to flood.  At some point late last night or this morning, construction bubble ripped off the roof and rainwater entered the Archives.  Resident nearby heard cover rip off at 5am?

  • Head of Archives was on vacation, Records Manager discovered the flood at 7am  There was a ¼” puddle headed for the electrical panel and people walking in the water.  Safety hazard.
  • Contractors were talking about turning up the heat, but this was not done.  HVAC was turned off completely around 9am.
  • 10AM all standing water was removed for 2nd floor, gone from ground level around 11am.
  • Centennial Hall was called but was unable to give space.  On day 4, they offered their space but it was not needed by then.  Head of Alaska State Library – Historical Collections (ASL-HC) secured the Juneau Arts and Culture Center (JACC) around 8 or 9am.  There was a pre-existing verbal agreement with the JACC director to use the space in an emergency.  JACC building was dealing with its own roof leak.
  • Curator of Museum Services from the Alaska State Museum (ASM) provided expertise, organized conservation response and facilitated connection between locations.
  • Conservators attending the Western Association for Art Conservation contributed expertise and labor to the response.  Approximately 15 conservators helped.  Other important volunteer sources were retired division staff, local library, university library, contractors, Alaska State Museum and Juneau-Douglas City Museum (JDCM) volunteers
  • Hair dryers, fans and dehumidifiers secured.  JACC had 4 humidifiers and 4 fans running.  Some items were purchased by the contractor, but personal calls to friends in other state divisions was most effective.
  • Juneau Douglas High School (JDHS) was a key source for tables (school not in session).
  • End rolls of newsprint secured from Juneau Empire.
  • State senator from Juneau visits site.
Chris Hieb rescues wet document boxes.  Photo by Damon Stuebner.

Chris Hieb rescues wet document boxes. Photo by Damon Stuebner.

Tuesday August 18

  • Smell of mold started to become strong in the JACC building itself.  Loading dock of Archives also had a smell.  Certain interleaving sheets were thought to be the source of that smell.  Awareness of the potential health risks, people
  • Recovery efforts established in the atrium of the State Office Building (SOB) atrium.
  • ASM Curator lined up a refrigeration van from AML barge lines, awaiting approval from administration.
  • 4pm, 200+ more wet boxes were discovered when the emergency when about 52 hours old.
  • Article appears in the Juneau Empire

Wednesday August 19

  • Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner stopped by today (and the next day,) two members of the Alaska House of Representatives came by the JACC.
  • Still discovering how far the leak penetrated, scope of emergency still not known.
  • Refrigeration van ordered by State Records Manager, coming up against the window for mold to get established.  Van arrived in the morning.  260 boxes placed in the van, wrapped in plastic trash bags first.  Stacked two high in the freezer van.  Needed a special energy source, so van was taken back to the barge line out Thane road and plugged in there.  $25 per day rental and $25 per day electricity.
  • Use of the ASM’s non-collections storage space in the Public Safety building nearby for temporary storage of processed dry boxes.

Thursday August 20

  • Most WAAC conference volunteers had passed off their roles to staff, but the paper conservators kept working even though the WAAC conference had begun.
  • Juneau City Clerk offered to put together a crew to work over the weekend if needed.
  • Friday August 21
  • Humidity strips ordered from Talas, they shipped them ground by accident.
  • Recovery efforts had to vacate the JACC by 11am due to incoming event.
  • About 1000 boxes impacted during entire emergency.  Archives has about 24,000 boxes in its collection.


  • Head of Archives empties dehumidifiers.
  • Many people came in to fluff and flip pages.

The Juneau Arts and Culture Center donated space to the recovery effort. Photo by Damon Stuebner.

Monday August 24

  • 10 frozen boxes were processed as a trial run, 5 in SOB and 5 at Archives.  Transported from Thane Road by panel truck.  They were allowed to thaw for about an hour on the floor with the top off the box.
  • Coordinator for the Archives Rescue Corps project (a grant-funded initiative to identify archival collections and needs statewide) gave a best practices chat and sent around email list about it to help get everyone on the same page.
  • Some of the frozen boxes had really wet materials, even though it was assumed they might not be too bad.
  • Head of Archives planned to unplug fans and dehumidifiers in Archives to see where things were in the morning, but that actually happened on Friday.

Tuesday August 25

  • Down to only one volunteer in SOB, two in Archives.  Library staff on ¾ time recovery, and ¼ time regular business.  Archives still 100% on recovery issues.  Library to remain closed this week, Archives will also remain closed next week.  Archives responding only to pre-existing reference requests, not taking new ones.
  • Everything that was wet that was NOT on the freezer truck was dealt with.
  • Another 60-70 boxes total pulled from freezer truck to process.
  • Warmer and more humid than normal in Historical Collections today.  Related? Is HVAC compensating?  Resolved with fans.
  • Instrument in the stacks reads 66.6 degrees F and 60%RH in the morning when ASM conservatorreads it.  Raining really hard outside today.

Wednesday August 26

Thursday August 27

  • Started to leave the SOB atrium, and moved into the info services area of the library.
  • Humidity strips finally arrived in the afternoon.
  • Another article in the Juneau Empire

Friday August 28

  • All materials finally all out of the SOB atrium.
  • Turned off dehumidifiers and fans in the Archives stacks and closed the doors.


The atrium of the State Office Building, just outside the Alaska State Library, was another location for the recovery effort.  Photo by Damon Stuebner.

The atrium of the State Office Building, just outside the Alaska State Library, was another location for the recovery effort. Photo by Damon Stuebner.

Monday August 31

  • Library open, half their space still closed off for recovery

Tuesday September 1

Wednesday September 2

Thursday September 3

  • Boiler is turned back on in the Archives building

Friday September 4

  • Debriefing summary meeting.  Remarkable, even a week later, how different people’s memories and assumptions were.  Very civil, however.
  • After today, 15 boxes are still frozen. 

Tuesday September 15

  • Dock, garage and vault cleaning is finished.

Archives loading dock. Photo by Damon Stuebner.


  • Incident Command System (ICS) not fully implemented FEMA training needed.
  • People are sensitive to chain-of-command issues and this came up several times: being denied use of Centennial Hall, delay in accessing certain volunteer pools, people taking initiative early on such as covering things with tarps because they did not want to “step on toes”.
  • Although there was leadership, people were still confused about who was in charge.  Some volunteers left when they could not find someone to give them direction.
  • Hard to communicate over multiple locations (Archives, JACC, SOB).
  • Controlling unauthorized purchasing.
  • Someone to go around to each group and describe how to process a wet box would have helped standardize the system earlier.  Especially the order to lay out box contents so they could be re-packed accurately and efficiently.
  • People wanted a sense of prioritization in the materials recovered, although this was difficult in the early days of discovering the extent of the emergency, and prioritization may have slowed down efficiency.  Are people working to save things that have duplicates elsewhere while unique rare items are still wet?  Would have been nice to have an Archives representative working at each site.
  • Having a laptop with Archives database Minisis on it would have been nice.
  • Tracking in general was difficult.
  • Tracking which box was re-shelved in order to include it in the re-checking plan.
  • Document safety: Records with confidentiality issues are being dried in asecure office.  Someone needed to stay with papers in SOB atrium until building was locked each night.  Confidential records include:  personnel records, social security numbers, health information, Department of Law or Attorney General files, vital records (birth, marriage, death, adoption, child custody,) court records such as names of victims, prisoners, witnesses, juveniles, parolees, pre-sentence reports etc. 
  • Space needed to pile up processed material before it could go back to Archives.
  • Wet documents put into dry boxes for transport had a star drawn on the lid, but many people did not know what the star meant.
  • Some papers may still have been damp when sent back to storage.  The coolness of the paper from all the moving air hard to distinguish from the coolness of being damp.  Touch testing to determine dryness.  If your hand is sweaty or damp, also harder to determine dryness.  Things are left for several hours to dry, sometimes overnight.
  • Damage mainly things being some running of ink making things illegible, some photos stuck together.  Blue ink ran through to pages below.  “Gel” ink pens also run badly.  Red on the red-edged labels would bleed.  Dry-erase typing paper from the 1970’s had a coating that made it stick together.  Envelope adhesives activated.  Labels on folders tend to fall off, even when not wet.
  • After boxes re-shelved, it was discovered that some records were completely illegible, but put away after they dried without further review, as had been intended.
  • Some papers had swollen or wrinkled to the point that what was contained in a single box now requires two boxes.  Those are marked 1 of 1, 1 of 2 etc and put in the Head of Archives’ office for updating of Minisis.
  • 40lb Hollinger boxes were slightly larger than the 32lb AAA boxes, lids don’t fit.
  • Physical labor challenging, but concern that professional movers would not have the handling skills necessary, plus there needed to be careful record keeping as the boxes moved.
  • The Archives dock was a bottleneck, due to the number of people and the space.
  • Many people did not feel comfortable driving the big van.
  • Fans are loud and create an annoying breeze.  People are getting hoarse from shouting over them.
  • People need to take breaks, and while having food on site was convenient, there is also benefit to walking away for a little while and clearing one’s head with a change of scenery.
  • There was a ¼” puddle headed for the electrical panel and people walking in the water.  Safety hazard.
  • More first aid kits needed for paper cuts, staple wounds etc.
  • Building facility staff sometimes contributed to more problems, such as needing to move many tables in order to water plants.Circuits at the JACC were not able to handle as many hair dryers as we wanted to use.
  • Almost another disaster when smoke from welding on the roof caused one zone to go into alarm.  Another zone would have caused a Halon discharge, causing more damage and costing perhaps $100,000 to replenish, not to mention leaving the Archives storage without fire suppression.
  • Archives HVAC system can only increase humidity, not decrease humidity.
  • Hard to know the extent of the damage because the water traveled but also because a box could be very wet but the contents could be OK or vice versa.  Took several days to know the extent of the emergency.
  • Humidity went up in the Historical Collections, perhaps because fans used regularly in there were re-purposed for the emergency.  Issue of putting other collections at risk during the emergency?
  • Was it better or worse to have the JACC loading dock door open?  It happened to be raining outside, and no rain was coming in but the RH question was hard to resolve.
  • Dumpster space needed for throwing away wet discarded material.
  • Lack of understanding about the difference between freezing and freeze-drying.
Archives loading dock area.  Photo by Damon Stuebner.
Archives loading dock area. Photo by Damon Stuebner.



  • Lucky that it was clean rainwater and not dirty groundwater.
  • Vault containing the oldest and most vulnerable archives was not very impacted.
  • Cardboard boxes and file folders absorbed water and were sacrificial, often the archival material itself was not wet.  Boxes that held reel-to-reels also sacrificial.
  • Easier to handle the foldered papers than the bound books that had been in the library flood a few years ago.
  • Fanning out folder contents with folders on the bottom promotes drying, but you must counteract blow-away.  Leaving staples, paper clips etc on helps (and then discard those fasteners to make it easier to put folders into boxes.)  Weight the papers.  Improvised weights included nuts & bolts, pellet gun shot, sand, cat litter etc put in ziplock bags or envelopes taped shut, clean plastic bottles, or small Tupperware containers.
  • Instead of cutting boxes to capture info before tossing them, photocopy the box instead.  Not taping things to boxes, since that may not last, but rewriting info on new box and then dropping the old label or a copy inside.
  • Helps track if “frozen” is written on an impacted box.
  • Putting wet boxes in plastic trash bags in order to put them in the freezer truck helped move them, keep them together if they started to fall apart.
  • Wet feet will freeze to floor of the van.  More gloves against the cold would have been nice.
  • The frozen material did not behave any differently than the non-frozen when it was processed, but it was harder to tell when it was dry because it was cold.
  • Getting newsprint endrolls was really lucky, helped to go there and ask in person in the morning.  If school had been in session, we might not have gotten any since teachers love them.
  • If school had been in session, student volunteers may have been available (but so many tables might not have been available)
  • Good attitude, people were nice to each other, overall sense of calm.  Tone was set from the top down.
  • LAM-wide emergency response committee was the core of leadership during the event.
  • Communicating status and issues with post-its was effective
  • The people driving the van were the glue and informal communication conduit between sites
  • Some kind of more regular daily meeting might have helped, even if not everyone could attend.  Having a summary email coming from the Director of LAM is good, because her name carries weight and people will read it.
  • Easier emotionally to work on a collection if it is not “yours.”
  • In general, it is good practice not to leave boxes on the floor at the end of a workday
Wet document boxes in Archives stacks during the emergency.  Photo by Damon Stuebner.
Wet document boxes in Archives stacks during the emergency. Photo by Damon Stuebner.

NEXT STEPS (as planned two weeks after the disaster)

  • Monitoring the RH with humidity strips in the boxes
  • System for box checking and then random box checking. 
  • Silica gel packets if needed 
  • Should a paper conservator come back to do a debriefing and help assess the damage?
  • Air quality monitoring?
  • Eventually rotate in acid-free materials for any non archival materials used in the recovery.  Some folders used for the recovery are smaller and shallower than the original folders as well.
  • LAM-wide basic emergency response plan, including Incident Command System
  • LAM-wide scenarios, both “table-tops” where a scenario is discussed and hands-on exercises where activities take place. Training to familiarize everyone with Incident Command System
  • Compile new resource list, include humidity monitoring devices & supplies, communications devices, have a well-known location for these supplies
  • Compile contact info for responders to include in emergency response plans
  • Compile reference file about mold
  • Memorandums of Agreement with other organizations (JACC, Centennial Hall, Terry Miller gym etc)
  • Having staff read over contracts, be on first-name basis with contractors?