This training is for
people working with museum collections
How to complete the training
follow the sections below in order, read the added resources, watch the videos and then move onto Object Packing
Wherever possible, limit the extent and frequency of handling and moving objects. For example, if an examination of a collection or object is required, conduct it in the store and examine the object in situ.
Try to combine multiple consultations, or consider digitising the object or creating a facsimile.
When you do need to move an object (ie, you're creating an exhibition, photographing the collection or moving an object to improve storage), safe handling and moving is necessary.
Objects are fragile for many reasons: owing to their age, their past use or even their manufacture.
They are also often the only surviving examples of their kind and it is the role of the museum to preserve these objects for as long as possible.
Good object handling practices should be applied to all objects in a museum's collection to minimise the risk of damage during consultation, moving and handling.
Damage often occurs in areas of objects that are weak. However, not all weak areas are immediately visible.
For example, apart from some crazing to the glaze, the green ceramic in the image looks relatively intact. However, placed under UV light the historic adhesive fluoresces, illuminating old repairs and making visible areas of vulnerability in the ceramics.
Preparation for handling and moving an object or collection is crucial as it mitigates the risks of moves going awry and causing damage to objects. Accidents often happen when collections are being moved in a hurry or to an unfamiliar location.
When moving objects in any setting there are six key elements that should be considered in advance:
1. Destination Where is the object going? Is there a suitable space clear to set the object down? Do you need to add protection to the surface to cushion the object? If the object is to be set on the floor, have you got suitable equipment to do so?
2. Route What is the best route to take the object? (Remember, the shortest may not be the best). Do you have assistance to open doors? Are all potential obstacles cleared away?
3. Timing How long will this move take? Are you aware of all restrictive scheduling (for example, when does the building close, are any fire drills planned)? Do you have a contingency plan if the move overruns?
4. Equipment Do you have the correct equipment for the job? How heavy is the object – can you and/or the equipment you intend to use safely lift the object?
5. Object Have you inspected the object(s) prior to the move? Are you aware of its condition? Have you consulted all relevant documentation for advice of weaknesses or hazards present?
6. You Have you removed all jewellery or lanyards that might get caught on, scratch or damage the object? Do you have the right gloves? Do you need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?
Powder-free nitrile gloves are the most suitable for working with collections. However, all gloves will limit your dexterity, so a good fit is essential. Heavy-duty work gloves with nitrile coatings are appropriate for use with more robust objects where the object’s surface is rougher and may snag or split disposable nitrile gloves.
It is not recommended that cotton gloves be used when handling collections as they do not provide a complete barrier between your skin and the object.
It is also common for the fibres to get caught and snag where they come into contact with the surface of collections.
While the use of disposable nitrile gloves increase waste there are glove recycling schemes available to reduce environmental impact.
We've created the guide below detailing the measures you should consider when handling these common materials. However, this guide should be used as a minimum standard of handling collections: all objects should be considered individually, and specialist advice sought if the object appears particularly fragile or not as expected.
Click to expand each section below:
When handling ceramics and glass, first check for existing fractures and damage as these will indicate the especially weak and fragile areas of the object. Ensure your work surface is padded either with a piece of plastazote, or a layer of bubble wrap/jiffy foam under a sheet of acid-free tissue paper.
It is important to wear gloves especially with non-glazed ceramics as their porous surface is particularly susceptible to oils and dirt from your skin. Wearing gloves with glazed and glass objects also limits the need for additional surface cleaning which could eventually cause cumulative damage to the object.
Image: Electric Light Bulb, object ref: T.1991.X.13
Always wear gloves when handling metals as oils from your skin can promote rapid tarnishing. It is important also to change gloves when handling different metals as microscopic particles can be transferred from one metal to the other and will also increase the tarnishing rate.
How to handle
When handling metal objects, be aware they can often be more vulnerable than they appear. For example, tin and lead are particularly soft metals and are susceptible to denting and scratches. In addition, be aware of soldered joints and decoration which are often innate weaknesses in the structure of the object.
Image: Incorrect (left) and correct (right) handling of metal objects
Textiles can be more fragile than they appear. They can become brittle and faded with age, particularly those that have been subject to prolonged exposure to light. Silk is particularly vulnerable, in part due to the common use of weighting agents in manufacture. Over time these various agents weaken the silk fibres making them susceptible to splitting along folds and during handling.
Generally, it is not advised that gloves are necessary during handling. Clean hands with the improved dexterity offered by not wearing gloves is often the preferred practice. The common exception to this is textiles with metal thread or detailing, here gloves are necessary to protect the metals from corrosion.
Image: Correct handling for garments on hangers
As one of the bulkier and heavier types of museum collections, furniture is one of the more difficult objects to handle and move, and therefore more at risk of damage. Be aware of old repairs and weak joints as well as structural weakness caused by historic infestations of furniture beetle.
Gilding and upholstery are particularly prone to damage and should be touched as little as possible. Synthetic twentieth-century upholstery foam is particularly prone to degradation. Because of this, it is best to avoid placing pressure on upholstery in order to avoid the object become misshapen.
Image: Sideboard, object ref: K.2016.155.1
Before handling frames, check for and record any damage. Ornate frames in particular are susceptible to losses during moves and it’s important to know what damage is already present. Also check for any missing stretcher keys as they can sometimes become dislodged.
Image: Painting of Douglas, 8th Duke of Hamilton on his Grand Tour, object ref: A.1991.156 A
Like textiles, it is not imperative to wear gloves when handling paper as the improved dexterity afforded by not wearing gloves is more advantageous.
However, it is necessary to wear gloves when handling photographs due to the chemical make-up of the photographic layer and on some shiny or waxed papers which can be susceptible fingerprints.
When handling these objects do not touch the image, be it pencil, chalk, paint or photographic, as these are particularly susceptible to damage – especially that of a cumulative nature.
Pick-up by the edges and support on acid-free card wherever possible to limit direct handling. If an item is rolled, do not attempt to unfurl it unless absolutely necessary and consult a paper conservator if you have any doubts about the objects fragility and suitability to being unfurled.
Handling bound volumes
The University of Glasgow have produced some useful video guidance on handling and consulting bound volumes.
Image: Correct handling for unframed paper
Stone objects can look robust but are particularly susceptible to damage and chipping when being moved and lowered.
Like with any material, stone objects vary hugely in size. Treat small objects like you would ceramics and glass. Treat larger items with similar care: pad around edges and use lifting equipment to limit the risk of damage from poor manual handling.
Where flat stone objects are being carried and not being laid flat on a surface for moving, ensure they are being carried vertically (like frames, above) as they can break under their own weight.
Image: Cassiterite, grey aggregated crystals, object ref: G.1922.62
Wear nitrile gloves to prevent finger marks and sweat deposition. These materials are easily chipped so they should be packed or protected when you are moving them, placed on a padded surface for storage or consultation.
These materials are particularly vulnerable to changes in relative humidity. Wearing gloves will protect from localised changes in relative humidity (heat and moisture from the hands are sufficient to warp thin ivory). Ivory is a hygroscopic material: it absorbs or releases moisture with changing humidity, swelling or shrinking in response to variations in moisture content. Fluctuations in RH can cause cracking and warping. Ivory is also easily stained and must not be left in contact with iron, copper, brass or coloured materials.
Image: North Sulawesi babirusa, object ref: Z.1945.51
Always wear gloves when handling leather as it is particularly susceptible to mould and your hands will provide the micro-organisms to initiate mould growth. Leather can become brittle with age so always exercise caution.
If leather has lost its flexibility do not be tempted to try and bend it back into shape - consult a conservator for advice. You must also be careful of the object’s surface as leather is often soft and easily scratched. Be careful of any decoration and avoid touching gilding wherever possible.
When consulting leather bound books never put your finger over the top of the spine and pull; you may break the spine and the headband. If there is space, put your hand right in and push the book out from behind. If there is no space, push two of the books on either side of the book you want, further into the shelf and then grip the book lightly between thumb and fingers around its spine and draw out.
Always grip the book firmly with your fingers completely around the spine. Never pack books away tightly as this may damage the spines.
Image: Hearing aid, object ref: T.1965.5
Accidents happen, and objects get damaged. If you find, or are party to collections damage, it is important to take measures to stop further damage. Follow your institution's processes for reporting and managing damage and if you are collecting the damaged object, undertake the following steps.
Hazards are common in museum and can pose a severe risk to health. Below is a list of hazards frequently encountered in National Museums Scotland collections and examples of where they can be found:
Gloves and face masks can offer basic protection but offer no protection against radiation and asbestos. Always consult object records for warnings of hazards but be aware they may not have yet been identified. Exercise caution, and if hazards are suspected cease work, consult a specialist, implement and follow risk assessments.
An excellent online training module on hazards in museum collections is available free from the Museum of London.
The handling and movement of large and heavy objects in museum collections requires the implementation of good manual handling practices.
Ensure that the correct Personal Protective Equipment is used, for example safety shoes and heavy-duty gloves.
It is also important to recognise that manual handling limits judgement as your mind is focused on lifting and balancing the load and less so on your surroundings. It is for this reason it is important to have a method statement (like the sample below) and clear plan for the move to ensure all those understand the move before it begins.
The Manual Handling regulations set a maximum load of between 16.5 and 25kg for loads at elbow height.
However, you must reduce these loads by 5kg when carrying in any other position and by 10kg when objects are being carried below elbow height.
Wherever possible use equipment to limit the manual handling required, such as skates, lifting tables, pallet trucks and forklifts. Consider bringing in specialists if the move is particularly large or complex.
This video from the British Museum demonstrates how lifting equipment can be used to move a heavy object and limit manual handling.
In addition to this self-guided training we provide other services including webinars to give you an opportunity to ask questions and meet our experts. Please contact us for more information.Email email@example.com
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