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Museum Career Skills – Artifact Care and Handling


A museum collection includes rare artifacts and priceless treasures. These things have survived for decades. You don’t want to be the one to break them!

Using common sense will help protect the artifacts. These tips may seem obvious, but if you follow them you will be less likely to damage an artifact while handling it.

Should you pick up an artifact by its handle?

Never. Where do you think a teacup has been picked up since it was created? It’s handle, of course. So what is most likely the most worn part of that cup? You guessed it – the handle! Instead, you should pick up the teacup on its side with both hands.

When should you where gloves?

Always wear gloves when handling textiles, metals, leather, and wood. Oils in your fingers can transfer to the surface of these materials and cause deterioration. Do not wear gloves when handling glass and ceramics, unless the surface is painted and unglazed. Generally, gloves increase the risk of glass slipping out of your hands. There are gloves with a “nubby” surface that help maintain grip. But your clean hands will work fine.

How should artifacts be safely stored?

Artifacts should be packed in acid-free materials, or placed on open shelves. Ideally, textiles should be wrapped in acid-free tissue, padded out at the folds, bodice, and sleeves. Flat items, like quilts, should be folded in thirds, not in half. Over the years it has probably been folded in half, placing stress on the same places. Most other artifacts are best stored in drawers or in open shelves so you can see them without handling them. Metal shelves are preferred because they are stable. There are archival boxes with clear lids that work well too. If you box your artifacts, each one should have its own space. For example, do not pile beaded purses on top of each other in a single box. The weight of the top purses could damage the ones on the bottom. Instead, each purse should have its own individual box, protecting it from the other pieces in the collection.

How many artifacts can your carry at once?

You should always carry ONE artifact at a time, firmly gripped in both hands. Juggling more than one will only increase your chances of dropping one or all of them. Support the base of the artifact with one hand, and wrap the other around the most stable part of the artifact. Be sure you have a sturdy, clear space to put the artifact down before you pick it up to avoid fumbling the object as you look for a place to put it down.

Always take your time when handling artifacts and maintain your focus and concentration. Most accidents occur because of carelessness and rushing. These artifacts are your responsibility. So take care of them well!


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Content copyright © 2014 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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