Museum Object Handling


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.


One Response to Museum Object Handling

  1. […] two days of workshops.  Topics the first day included Agents of Deterioration, Object Handling ( , Artifact Cleaning, and Artifact Labeling.   On the second day, we discussed the condition […]

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