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Museum Artifacts Should Never Be Used


When a museum takes an object into its permanent collection, that object “retires” from its original purpose. Tea sets will not be used to serve tea, vintage clothing will no longer be worn, and people will not be allowed to sit on the furniture.

This is such a basic concept in the museum profession, it is difficult to find any resources supporting this idea. Once an object has been accessioned, it is no longer used. Ever.

The primary purpose of a museum’s collection department is to preserve and protect the artifacts it holds in the public trust. In order to do that, specific rules must be followed for handling the artifacts. The objects in a museum are no longer treated as they were when they were privately owned. For example, white cotton gloves are used when touching most artifacts (except glass and china). Tea cups, tea pots, suitcases, and other objects with handles are no longer picked up by their handles. Clothing is hung on specially-made padded hangers or folded and placed in an acid-free box.

A museum was recently in the news for a vintage lingerie fashion show. The reporter referred to “museum purists” who would not let such an event take place. We aren’t “purists.” We are trained museum professionals. No one who works in a museum should allow vintage dresses, hats, jewelry, shoes, or any other objects to be worn by a live model under any circumstances.

Museum artifacts must be protected from excessive handling. It should be obvious to those entrusted with collections care that garments should never, ever be worn. Displaying them on a dress form can subject some textiles to unnecessary stress, let alone the trauma involved in wearing a vintage dress!

Certain artifacts might be demonstrated by trained museum staff and docents, such as a piano, spinning wheel, or music box. Guidelines should be established in advance between the curatorial and education staffs in order to minimize potential damage to the artifact(s). Anyone who is going to demonstrate an artifact should receive special training prior to using the artifact.

If a museum intends to use a donation, separate paperwork should be completed. The donor and the museum should be on the same page with regards to the intention of a donation. For example, if a local bank is refurbishing its board room and wants to donate its old table and chairs for museum use, the donation paperwork should be classified as a “non-accessioned gift,” which means the museum staff will actually use the table and chairs for meetings.

If the donation is accessioned as part of the museum’s permanent collection, it should never – under any circumstances – be used.
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Don't Touch the Artifacts!
Handling Artifacts Safely
Displaing Textiles
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Content copyright © 2015 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Kim Kenney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kim Kenney for details.

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