Artifact & Facilities Cleaning Guide


Best Cleaning Practices
Help Us to Help You
Disclaimer
Guide by Materials
Wood
Ceramics
Glass
Stone
Archival Materials / Works on Paper
Textiles
Ferrous Metals (Iron & Steel)
Non-Ferrous Metals (Brass, Copper, Silver, Bronze, Nickel, Chrome)
Natural History Specimens
Works of Art on Board or Canvas
Ethnographic Materials
Chemically-Tanned Leather


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Best Cleaning Practices

This concise guide to the cleaning of artifacts and facilities in small museums, archives and historic sites was produced in response to the findings of our Health & Safety Survey. The responses indicate the alarmingly widespread use in small museums of a range of cleaning agents designed for domestic and industrial settings. Many of these products contain bleaches, dyes, fragrances and other materials that can harm artifacts, facilities and people. For instance the ammonia used in most commercial window cleaners can affect metals stored or displayed nearby.  The acid vapours from vinegar can be harmful to a range of materials.  Pledge and household waxes can leave damaging residues that are impossible to remove. And if a number of different products are used there is no telling how they will react with each other, or how the resulting combinations might harm your artifacts, facilities, staff and visitors.

As a rule, conservator-approved museum cleaning involves the use of gentle brushes and cloths, and  mild cleaners based on distilled water and safe concentrations of sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS). You can purchase many such museum-grade cleaning agents along with polished and cleaning tools in our shop.

We will update this guide over time, and we are seeking the resources to produce a comprehensive handbook tailored to the needs of small institutions. But in the absence of a readily-available guide we wanted to make some of this material available immediately.

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Help Us to Help You

We are providing this free of charge, and we invite you to support our continuing efforts by ordering conservator-approved cleaning supplies from our shop. If you’re in a small museum, archive or historic site and would like to carry our products (and thereby become eligible for free product donations with no shipping costs) please get in touch. If you’re preparing to clean artifacts or facilities but are unsure about how to proceed, please contact our staff conservator who will be happy to answer any questions you might have. You can contact her at info@smallmuseums.ca.

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Disclaimer

This table is given as a guideline for best practice in artifact cleaning by museum personnel.  It is designed to enable simple dusting and damp cloth cleaning of artifacts.  This is not a replacement for the advice or work of a trained conservator.

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Guide by Materials


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Wood

Type Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
bare, unfinished wooden objects and surfaces May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.
Do not clean if the object has loose, flaking or splintering areas, loose or lifting veneer or parts
Do not wet clean.
finished objects, varnished, lacquered or painted May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.
Do not clean if the object has loose, flaking or splintering areas, loose or lifting veneer or parts.
Surfaces with stable finishes may be wet cleaned.  Use a mild detergent and water.  Follow with a rinsing wipe  de-ionized or distilled water.
wooden surfaces: bare, unfinished  (floors,wainscoting, window sills and sashes) For large areas gentle vacuuming is recommended.  Use a soft bristled vacuum attachment, or use a soft bristled brush to direct loose dusts and soils to the vacuum nozzle.  Vacuum nozzles should have sharp or heavy edges padded to eliminate the risk of scratching or injuring surfaces.
Do not use power heads or beater bars on floors.
Do not clean if  the surface has loose, flaking or splintering areas.
Do not wet clean.
wooden surfaces: finished, varnished, lacquered or painted (floors, wainscoting, window sills and sashes) For large areas gentle vacuuming is recommended.
Use a soft bristled vacuum attachment, or use a soft bristled brush to direct loose dusts and soils to the vacuum nozzle.  Vacuum nozzles should have sharp or heavy edges padded to eliminate the risk of scratching or injuring surfaces.
Do not use power heads or beater bars on floors.
Do not clean if  the surface has loose, flaking or splintering areas.
Surfaces with stable finishes may be wet cleaned.
Use a mild detergent and water.  Follow with a rinsing wipe  de-ionized or distilled water.If using mops, avoid using those with loose strings.  Sponge mops or cotton mops with banded ends are preferred.


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Ceramics

Type Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
unglazed –  terra cotta, bisque porcelain May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.
Examine any previous repairs to ensure that pieces are secure.
Do not wet clean.
glazed – decoration underglaze May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.
Examine any previous repairs to ensure that pieces are secure.
Surfaces with stable finishes may be wet cleaned.  Do not immerse.
Use a mild detergent and water.  Follow with a rinsing wipe  de-ionized or distilled water.
If adhesives are present, test ensure they are insoluble in cleaning solution.
Take care with ceramic pieces that have been repaired with metal staples or rivets. Clean these areas using damp swabs only.
glazed — overglaze decoration, paints and metallic trim May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid. Surfaces with stablefinishes may be wet cleaned.  Do not immerse.
Use a mild detergent and water. Follow with a rinsing wipe  de-ionized or distilled water.
If adhesives are present, test ensure they are insoluble in cleaning solution.
Take care with ceramic pieces that have been repaired with metal staples or rivets.  Clean these areas using damp swabs only.


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Glass

Type Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
unpainted, undecorated May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.
Examine any previous repairs to ensure that pieces are secure.
Surfaces with stable finishes may be wet cleaned.  Do not immerse.
Use a mild detergent and water. Follow with a rinsing wipe  de-ionized or distilled water.If adhesives are present, test ensure they are insoluble in cleaning solution.
painted, applied decoration, metallic trim May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.
Examine any previous repairs to ensure that pieces are secure.
Surfaces may be wet cleaned if surface finishes are stable. Do not immerse.
Use a mild detergent and water. Follow with a  rinsing wipe  de-ionized or distilled water.If adhesives are present, test ensure they are insoluble in cleaning solution.


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Stone

Type Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
Sculpture, components in historic houses May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid. Surfaces may be wet cleaned if the surface is stable.  Do not immerse.
Use a mild detergent and water. Follow with a rinsing wipe  de-ionized or distilled water. Argillite, a mineral used in First Nations sculpture is particularly sensitive to moisture.  If you suspect an object may be made from this material: do not wet clean.
mineralogical collections May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.
In cleaning mineralogical collections be aware that some specimens may be flaky and granular at the surface.  Proceed with care.
Do not wet clean.


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Archival Materials / Works on Paper

Type Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
Paper (printed matter, newspapers, books) Objects may be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.  Do not clean if the object is crumbling, has vulnerable tears or is in general poor condition.
Ensure that ink is well adhered to the page, and is not flaking or smearing.
Ensure that book bindings are secure enough for handling.  When dusting books, ensure that soils are brushed from the binding outward.
Do not wet clean.
Paper (works of art:  watercolours, pastels, pencil and crayon drawings) Watercolours may be brushed with a soft bristle brush if surfaces are solid.
Pastels, pencil drawings and other works of art should not be cleaned.
Do not wet clean.
Photographs Objects may be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.  Do not clean if the object is crumbling, has vulnerable tears or is in general poor condition. Do not wet clean.


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Textiles (Clothing, Costume, Decorative Needlework)

Type Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
clothing, costume, decorative needlework Objects may be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.  Do not clean if the object has loose, flaking or decayed areas, loose or fraying sections or components. Do not wet clean.


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Ferrous Metals (Iron & Steel)

Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
Objects may be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.
Areas of corrosion may be removed if the underlying metal is sound.  Active corrosion may be identified as bright orange to red areas, with loose materials and flaking.
Stable corrosion is red-to red-brown and relatively stable if the artifacts remain dry.
In removing corrosion products from ferrous metals, it is best to use brushes and picks that are made of materials softer than iron.  Brass  bristle brushes, pointed wood applicator sticks and skewers are recommended for ferrous materials.
Surfaces may be wet cleaned if surface finishes are stable.
Use a mild detergent and water. Follow with a rinsing wipe  de-ionized or distilled water.


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Non-Ferrous Metals (Brass, Copper, Silver, Bronze, Nickel, Chrome)

Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
Objects may be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.
Do not clean if  finish materials (paints, decals labels, etc.) are flaking, peeling cracking or sticky.
Do not clean if the object has unstable areas.  Ensure all parts are attached securely.
Areas of corrosion may be removed if the underlying metal is sound.  Active corrosion may be identified on copper, brass and bronze as bright green to  blue areas with loose materials and flaking.
Black to to brown corrosion materials on copper alloys are stable.
Black to brown materials on silver are stable.  Purplish to grey materials may be active corrosion.
Be aware that silver plated objects may have both copper and silver metals present.  Silver plated objects may show green copper corrosion products where the copper has been exposed.  Polishing these objects may put them at risk.
Corrosion on silver/brass/bronze may be removed with polishes, pointed applicator sticks, and mild abrasives.
Surfaces may be wet cleaned if surface finishes are stable.
Use a mild detergent and water. Follow with a rinsing wipe  de-ionized or distilled water.
If a polished surface is required after cleaning, fine particle abrasive polish may be used to restore a polished appearance.  Before polishing, always ensure that plating layers are stable and continuous, and that metal surfaces are thick enough to withstand the pressure and heat generated by the rubbing action of polishing.


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Natural History Specimens

Type Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
Taxidermy Do not clean.
Stuffed and mounted animals that are in historical collections are commonly preserved with arsenic.  Arsenic is a toxic material.
Do not wet clean.
Specimens preserved in jars/liquids May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid. Exterior surfaces may be wet cleaned if the surface is stable.
Use a mild detergent and water. Follow with a rinsing wipe  de-ionized or distilled water.
Herbaria, pressed plants, insect collections Do not clean. Do not clean.


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Works of Art on Board or Canvas

Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
May be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.
Do not clean if materials are flaking, peeling, cracking or sticky.
Do not clean if the stretcher or support has loose, flaking or splintering areas, loose or lifting parts.
Do not wet clean.


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Ethnographic materials

Type Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
smoke tanned leathers, furs, skins, feathers, bark based materials, shell, bone and antler

Objects may be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid.  Do not clean if the object has loose, flaking or powdery areas, loose or lifting components or parts.

Do not wet clean.


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Chemically-Tanned Leather

Dry cleaning method Wet cleaning method
Objects may be dusted with soft bristle brushes if surfaces are solid. Be aware that some leathers are not completely tanned:  and exposure to moisture can have irreparable effects.

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To promote the use of conservator-approved cleaning projects please visit our shop and learn about seller benefits.

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