One of the basic rules of handling artifacts is that you just donít touch them. Curators, educators and docents have a cache of white cotton gloves at our disposal to safely handle artifacts in a museumís collection.
There are oils on the palms of our hands that can damage an artifact over time. You might not see it now, but your fingerprint on a historic textile can actually cause it to deteriorate in a year, two years or a decade. In the museum world, we think on a much larger timeline scale than the average person.
The most sensitive materials in a museumís collection are textiles, wood and metal artifacts. These materials are harmed the most by the oils on your hands.
Perhaps the most visible and fast-acting example would be a fingerprint on a piece of sterling silver. Your hand oils speed up the inevitable tarnishing process, leaving a tangible reminder of why you should have worn gloves when handling it.
But there are some materials that curators do not handle with gloves.
Hand oils are not a threat to glass or pottery that has been sealed with a glaze. Wearing gloves increases the likelihood that a smooth artifact will slip out of your hands, unless you wear the kind of gloves with a gripping surface on the palm.
Therefore glass, china and ceramics should be handled with clean hands, not with gloves. You should wear gloves when handling unglazed pottery, painted glass or china that has been painted over the glaze.
There is also some debate about whether or not we should wear gloves when handling paper items. Paper is definitely susceptible to damage from hand oils. But some museums and archives, like the New York Public Library, would rather not risk delicate pages being torn by gloved hands. They prefer researchers to handle archival items with clean, un-gloved hands instead.
It is also important to use good judgment when handling artifacts. For example, if you have a toy with a paper label that is peeling, and your gloves are catching the frayed edges and causing (or potentially causing) further damage, remove your gloves and wash your hands before handling that piece.
If you are dressing a mannequin and you cannot fasten the hook and eye closures with your gloves on, wash your hands and finish the process.
As a general rule, museum professionals will not handle artifacts without gloves. It is a misconception that we wear gloves to protect our hands! We wear them to protect the artifacts.