Several years ago the National Park Service produced a video called Housekeeping for Historic Sites. It contains a wealth of information to keep in mind when attempting to clean historical artifacts.
It is highly recommended that anyone charged with cleaning collection items be required to watch this video first!
Regular cleaning will prevent dust build-up from causing long-term damage to artifacts. It will also present a positive, clean image to your visitors.
Here are some tips for cleaning artifacts:
1. Before you begin, have a plan. Take a moment to survey the exhibit you are cleaning. Observe where you can walk without disturbing any of the objects on display. Note any changes that have taken place since the last time you were in the space. Remove all jewelry that might snag or scratch the artifacts.
2. Do not handle an object more than necessary. Minimizing direct contact with artifacts will decrease the chance of breaking them. If an object is damaged, report it to the Curator immediately. He or she will make a detailed report on the condition of the artifact, including photographs.
3. Use white cotton gloves to handle all artifacts except glass and china. Be sure your hands are clean before handling objects that do not require gloves.
4. Dust artifacts with soft dusting cloths and brushes purchased from an archival product supplier specifically for use with artifacts.
5. Clean textiles such as carpets, upholstered furniture and curtains with a low suction vacuum cleaner through a nylon screen to prevent pulling stray threads and unraveling them.
6. Before handling an object with movable parts, inspect it for previous damage that made be aggravated by movement.
7. Move all artifacts by the main body of the piece. Never hold something by its handle, because that is where the artifact is likely the most weak.
8. Only move one artifact at a time.
9. Know where you are going to set an artifact down BEFORE you pick it up.
10. Large objects such as historic furniture require more planning to move. First, inspect the artifact for any structural damage. Always use at least two people to move a large artifact. Lift it by its most secure points. Do not drag it.
11. Never force a drawer or cupboard to open. Only use the handles to open them a little, then support the drawer with your hands to open it the rest of the way.
12. Commercial cleaners are too harsh to use on historic surfaces. If you must clean something more than just dusting it, consult a professional conservator who specializes in the material in question.
13. Fingerprints can destroy metals over time. Be sure to wear gloves before touching anything metal. And remember, pewter and tin are soft metals and are easily scratched.
14. Dusting will be sufficient to clean most glass and china items. You can use a slightly damp cloth to loosen stubborn dirt. However gilded, painted, or damaged glass and ceramics should never be wet cleaned.
15. Framed objects are under a great deal of stress. Protect objects around the frames before you clean them, just in case they fall.