An important, and often neglected, part of designing and developing a display is making certain that appropriate supports, display materials and techniques are used when displaying collection items. Displaying items incorrectly and without proper support over an extended period of time can cause irreparable damage. Careful and appropriate display of items also shows visitors and donors that the museum cares for its collection.
This Help Sheet introduces some principles for safe and effective display of items. It also provides basic guidelines for identifying items that require support, and for making and using appropriate supports.
Some principles of good display
1. Items should be displayed in ways that reduce the impact of the external environment. For example:
- Be aware of where a fragile item is positioned and the amount and intensity of light regularly falling on it. Sensitive items are better displayed behind Perspex or glass or in an enclosed case rather than in the open air. This limits their exposure to pollutants in the external environment and protects them from changes in temperature and humidity.
- Large items in direct contact with the floor or a wall are more at risk of damage from dampness, dust, changes in temperature and pest infestation. They are also more likely to be bumped by a visitor or an enthusiastic worker with a vacuum cleaner. It is better to display the object lifted slightly above the floor, and away from the wall, on plinths or other stable and strong supports.
2. Items should be displayed so that their integrity is maintained. For example:
- The spine, cover and pages of a book displayed open at a particular page without support will gradually become distorted. The spine might crack and the cover may warp. The book will forever fall open to the same place and the open pages will fade and yellow from prolonged exposure to the light. Using an appropriate book support and turning pages regularly will reduce damage.
- If a dress is hung on a wire hanger or stretched over an unsuitable store mannequin great strain will be placed upon the seams and other fragile parts of the costume. The sharp line of the wire hanger will gradually cut into the fabric. Any creases created by the way the skirt hangs will become ingrained, the fabric weakened and prone to tearing. The parts of the dress exposed to light will fade. Displaying the dress on a padded hanger or on a specially constructed mannequin will contribute to its preservation.
3. Copies are an acceptable alternative
The quality of digital scanning and printing allows for accurate copies of original documents and photographs to be made. In many cases it is better to store irreplaceable originals under archival conditions and only use copies for display.
4. Less is more
Avoid crowding objects into display cases, particularly if it results in items touching or overlapping each other without a barrier in between. Choose the best examples or the items with the best connected stories.
- Avoid displaying very fragile and/or sensitive items and identify risks to any items on long-term display. Rotate items so that each spends less time out on open display. Not only does this add interest for returning visitors but it also aids in the preservation of the collection.
How to recognise if an object needs support
Virtually all items on display require some form of support or protection. Consider each object before placing it on display; examine its condition, the material it is made from and the way it is made. A few simple things to keep in mind are:
- The more fragile an object, the more support it is likely to need.
- Items that have heavy parts such as covers of books or hinged lids on boxes are likely to become damaged without appropriate support.
- Some materials are more sensitive to the external environment. For example textiles, paper and pigments such as watercolours are particularly susceptible to damage from light and UV radiation. Metal items corrode more readily when in contact with uncoated wood.
Safe materials for making your own display supports
Always look for archival quality materials. These include:
- Acid-free cardboard and paper. These can be used for placing under flat items to prevent contact with wooden surfaces such as shelves or the inside of display cases. Wood can produce active chemicals which can damage items. Card or Corflute (a hollow fluted polyethylene plastic board commonly used for signs) can also be folded to create V-shaped supports for books. See the instructions included as an appendix to this Help Sheet.
- Acid free tissue paper: This can be crumpled and used to pad and fill-out the inside of a hat, a pair of boots, or parts of a costume on display.
- Mylar (polypropylene plastic film): This comes in the form of sheets or pockets. Pockets can be used for all sorts of paper items. Two mylar sheets can be sealed on all four sides (with double sided-acid free tape) to encapsulate items. The tape must only come into contact with the Mylar, not the item. Mylar strips can also be used to hold pages of a book open (do not force) or as photo corners (attached to the support not the photograph).
- Tyvek: This is a high-density polyethylene woven material which is often used to protect items such as textiles from dust and water while allowing air to circulate. Tyvek has many other uses in displaying items. It can be placed as a protective layer between objects and shelves or display cases. It can be filled with Dacron (polyester wadding) and sewn into pillow or cushion-type supports which can be used to support book covers or to pad garments. It can be used to cover all sorts of everyday objects such as cardboard rolls or pieces of non-archival foam so they can be used as supports.
- Cotton or calico cloth and Dacron wadding: The cloth can be sewed into pillows and filled with Dacron wadding to make pillow supports for objects and books, display cushions for small items, or padded hangers for garments. See reCollections ‘Caring for Cultural material Volume 2’, (p. 9-10) for instructions for making a padded hanger’ or your own mannequin (p. 19-20)
- Archival foam: This must be covered with Tyvek or cotton so that it doesn’t come into direct contact with an item. It can be cut to all different shapes and used to support objects. For example, a glass bowl might be placed in a shaped foam ring to prevent it moving, thereby reducing the risk of breakage.
Other useful aids for making your own display supports
- Cutting board and a steel ruler for cutting archival board and/or a small guillotine for cutting paper
- Sewing kit, cotton tape, tape measure
- Double-sided sticky tape, photo corners
- Cardboard rolls (various sizes) – these need to be covered with cotton or Tyvek
- Various sized wooden display plinths and boxes (sealed)
- Perspex display stands of different sizes
- Polystyrene heads (for hats)
A checklist of things to avoid
A simple rule of thumb is to avoid attaching anything to, or passing anything through, an item. Items can be supported or laid on top of archival supports but should not be attached to them in any way. Steer clear of the following:
- Pins, thumbtacks or staples
- Sticky tape, (including non archival standard double-sided tape)
- Glue, adhesives of any kind
- Velcro dots and strips
- Sharp wire
- Wire hangers
- Rubber bands
- Do not laminate original photos or documents. Laminating destroys the historical integrity of an object and it cannot be reversed.
Also watch out for
- Unprotected wooden shelves or display cases. Use acrylic paints or polyurethane for cases and allow these sealants to cure for 2-4 wks before use. Avoid chipboard, masonite and particle board.
- Use of wool felt inside display cases. It emits sulphur gases and attracts insects. Use a sheet of Tyvek instead.
- Display cases that you can’t open easily and safely
- Unsupported, sagging objects such as books, documents, textiles
- Unsupported fragile items such as objects made from glass. They can ‘walk’ their way off shelves due to vibration caused by people walking past.
- Sharp creases and folds in textiles and garments
- Overlapping items without placing a barrier between them such as tissue paper or Tyvek
- Items displayed on the floor or against the walls. Use some kind of support to lift them from the ground.
- Items exposed to constant bright light. See the Museum Environment Help Sheet for pointers on how to avoid this.
A note on large outdoor objects
- For cars and tractors, display up on blocks or jacks to keep the tyres off of dirt or gravel.
- Provide shelter for significant large objects on outdoor display. Keep them off the ground.
Construction of a book support for display
Kristin Phillips: Artlab Australia
Books that are displayed open need appropriate support in order to prevent damage to the book spine, splitting of the text block and possible loss of pages. Such damage is difficult and expensive to repair and should always be prevented. A book support specifically constructed to fit a book will allow it to be safely displayed.
Selecting a book for display
Determine if the book is in good condition. Check to see if:
- the covers are well attached
- the spine is damaged
- pages are coming loose or are torn
Fragile or damaged books may not be able to be displayed without causing further damage. It is important not to force a book open or bend the covers or pages to any angle where you feel any resistance from the spine.
Construction of plastic loop to hold pages open
If the book will not stay open on the pages to be displayed a loop of clear polyethylene plastic can be used to hold the pages. Cut a 1 cm wide strip of plastic. Loop the plastic strip around the book on the selected page so that it is firm but not tight. Cut the length of the loop allowing for a 2cm overlap and attach the overlap with double sided tape. Double-sided tape doesn’t have to be archival quality because it is not in direct contact with the book.
Construction of book support
Corflute™ is recommended for constructing book supports. Corflute™ is hollow fluted polyethylene plastic board commonly used for signs, which can be purchased from an art supplier. Supports for smaller or lighter books may also be made with acid-free cardboard.
Once the selected pages are secured measure the book for the support. Place the book on the table and whilst supporting the covers determine a safe angle that will be suitable for display. Use props to temporarily hold the book at the desired angle. Measure the profile of the book.
- Measure the following as per diagram 1
- A. Flap (generally 20 mm, if slope is very low may not be required)
- B. Spine (this may be in a straight line with C or adjacent to the back cover depending on support)
- C. Front cover (the length should be 15mm less than the actual cover)
- D. Left hand height of support (this may be a different height to F)
- E. Base (the base will be slightly shorter than the outside edges of the book)
- F. Right hand height of support (this may be a different height to D)
- G. Back cover (The length should be 15mm less than the actual cover)
- H. Flap (generally 20 mm, if slope is very low may not be required )
Measure the height of the book (Less 1cm so that the support does not protrude).
Mark out a rectangle onto the Corflute™ which is the total of measurements A-H (length) and the height. Corflute™ must be measured and cut so that the flutes/inner walls run from the top to the bottom of the book. Cut the rectangle as marked.
Height of the book – 1cm ↨
Direction of the flutes ↑
↔The length is the total of each measurement A-H
Mark the lengths of each of the measurements A-H onto the board (Diagram 2). Do not cut the line between the spine and the cover if they sit in a straight line. Cut all of the other lines as marked being careful to only cut through the top layer of the Corflute™. Fold the board at each cut so that the cut layer opens outwards.
Fold the board into the book support shape and adhere using hot glue.
Covering sides for display
For display the open sides of the support can be covered. This is only done to improve the appearance of the support for display. Trace the shape of the sides onto cardboard chosen to best suit the display. Cut the shape and adhere it to the sides of the support with hot glue. It is not essential that cardboard used for this purpose is acid free as it is not directly in contact with the book.