General Collection Handling Guidelines
Collection items are put at risk of damage when they are handled or moved from one location to another. Items are handled when they are first assessed and acquired, when catalogued and numbered, cleaned, stored or displayed. The use of good handling practices is critical in the long-term preservation of collection items.
Assess items thoroughly before handling them. The size and weight of items, the materials they are made up of and their general condition are key factors in determining how items should be handled.
Wear appropriate gloves. Clean cotton gloves or disposable surgical gloves (latex or nitrile) protect items from contact with acids and oils from fingerprints, which can be damaging. Cotton gloves are suitable for most items. Potentially slippery items such as glass and ceramics are more easily handled with surgical gloves. Surgical gloves are also useful for items with decorated surfaces (including textile items) if there is a chance that the glove material may ‘catch’ on the item and cause damage. Where it is necessary to handle objects without gloves it is okay to use bare hands so long as they are thoroughly washed, rinsed of any soap residue and dried.
Plan. Think ahead about where the item will be moved to and how it will be moved. What obstacles are along the way, such as doors to open, steps or uneven ground that needs to be taken into account.
Jewellery and other hazards. Remove any jewellery or watches which may catch on, scratch or tear an object. Even broken fingernails can be a hazard to objects, especially textiles and costume.
Prohibit eating, drinking and smoking around collection items.
Hazards in objects - potential hazards include asbestos, mercury, lead, dusts, fungi, insects, cutting edges, propellents, fuels and gases, which may pose a risk to the person/s handling the item.
Centre of gravity - lift an object at its centre of gravity and properly support it from underneath.
Exposure to Light - avoid exposing objects to direct sunlight. In general do not move objects out of storage or display areas and into weather conditions hazardous to objects.
Safe and Secure
Hold items securely so that they are well supported. When moving objects, make sure that they are safe, secure and will not be subjected to unnecessary vibration or movement while in transit.
Pack items in boxes with acid-free tissue or other appropriate packing material. Packing materials should be used above, below and around items so as to minimise movement and provide items with all necessary support. Avoid placing objects in contact with one another.
Small objects in particular should be packed into individual boxes for transport.
Keep boxes horizontal to minimise movement of objects.
Never put both light-weight objects and heavy objects in the same container. The heavy object could fall over and damage the lighter one.
Objects are most vulnerable to damage when they are being moved (including when they are moved during cleaning activities).
Never attempt to move an object which is too heavy or large for one person to move safely. Seek assistance.
Always use appropriate moving equipment, such as trolleys or forklifts, and make sure that you are properly trained in its use.
Make sure that the path is clear.
Plan your movements.
Make sure there is a space to place the objects down when you arrive.
Avoid jerks and stops and uneven surfaces.
One at a time - carry only one object at a time in your hands, using both hands. Do not use an object’s handle, rim, edge or an attachment to carry it. Handles are often the weakest part of an object.
Costume should not be worn. Large pieces of technology, such as cars and boats, should not be operated unnecessarily or in a manner that creates stress and deterioration.
Labelled storage boxes and well-organised collection storage helps to minimise movement of items when trying to ‘find’ a particular item
Good storage is one of the best preventive measures an organisation or individual can take to protect their collections from damage. There are many benefits of good storage:
- Many items, especially textiles and paper-based items, are not suitable for long-term display. Good storage allows items to be rested from display and rotated through storage and display to increase their longevity
- Items in storage take up much less room than items on display
- Items in storage have much improved longevity and are less subject to risks such as from handling and cleaning, as is much more frequent for items on display
- Well-organised storage makes it easy to locate items quickly, should they be required
- Good storage demonstrates to visitors and donors that the collecting organisation is serious about the long-term care of its collection
The longevity of collections can often be improved significantly by simple improvements to their storage environment. This can include changing the storage environment itself, or changing the materials used for storage enclosures.
The following information is adapted from Caring for Collections workshop notes prepared by Artlab Australia
Storage Methods for Archival Collections
Good storage is the one of the best preventive measures an organisation or individual can take to protect their collections from damage.
- Controlling the storage environment helps to prevent damage occurring due to pests, insects, temperature, humidity, dusts, pollutants and mould.
- Keeping collection items in storage containers reduces the risk of such damage even further, and allows items to be handled, accessed and arranged more easily.
When an organisation has only limited resources for the preservation and conservation of their collections, the greatest good can be achieved through improving the storage of the collections. Even quite fragile and damaged items can remain stable if they are placed in appropriate storage containers.
The most damaged items conservators treat tend to be those that have been stored in poor conditions – for example, damp, dusty sheds, with little or no protection from insects, rats and water.
Improving the storage conditions for your collections can be simple and does not have to be costly. Similarly, constructing or purchasing appropriate storage containers can be straightforward and does not necessarily involve high costs.
The Storage Environment
The first level of protection for a collection is to create a suitable environment where temperature and relative humidity are maintained within safe parameters. In Australia, the following parameters are suitable for most mixed collections.
|Relative Humidity (RH)||50%±10%.|
These are not necessarily the ideal conditions for all material types – for example, metal and paper objects are better stored in an environment below 50% RH, and photographic and film collections are best stored at very low temperatures – but are a compromise, taking into account the fact that most museums have mixed collections and few have the resources for dedicated storage areas for particular collection needs.
Local conditions should also be taken into account when setting temperature and relative humidity levels. For example, in the more arid areas of Australia, lower humidity levels are experienced and collections are often acclimatised to these conditions. To change the humidity levels suddenly could cause damage.
For paper collections, the greatest risk is mould growth, which is much more likely above a relative humidity of 65%. If possible, relative humidity should not stay above 65% for extended periods of time and, if it does rise above 65%, it is useful to provide air circulation with overhead fans etc to prevent the growth of mould.
If air conditioning is present, it should generally be maintained 24 hours in collection spaces to prevent major fluctuations in relative humidity. Often it is better to store collections in well-sealed buildings without air conditioning than to subject it to changed conditions only during working hours. A specific analysis of the building environment would be necessary to determine the most appropriate course of action.
Although it is difficult to achieve ideal conditions and fluctuations will occur, temperature and relative humidity do have a real effect on the long-term condition of collection items and an effort should be made to achieve stable conditions.
Dust causes abrasion of fragile surfaces, attracts insects, can promote mould growth in high relative humidity and is wasteful of staff resources when collection items need to be cleaned regularly. Preventing dust from settling on collection items is a major part of maintaining them in good condition. The air should be kept free of pollutants and dust should be filtered and kept to a minimum.
Collection items should be kept in dark storage and exposed to light only during periods of study, display or conservation. When works are taken from storage for specific reasons, different light levels will be appropriate. Study and conservation are relatively short tasks and require good light to work by, whereas during the longer periods of display, light levels should be much lower. UV light is not required for vision and it is best to eliminate UV light through filtering wherever possible.
It is important to keep storage areas well maintained to reduce the risk of a disaster occurring – for example, a leaking roof, a pest infestation, or large fluctuations in temperature and humidity. In short, if you want your collection to remain in good condition, your building also needs to remain in good condition. It is useful to draw up a maintenance schedule, listing specific activities to be carried out each month. Some of these activities include:
- Regular clearing and repair of gutters.
- Regular inspection for termite damage and salt damp.
- Regular maintenance of nearby grounds – eg trimming trees back from roof, ensuring grass is kept cut, etc.
- Regular check of plumbing, electrical circuits and fire suppression equipment.
- Regular rubbish removal.
- Weatherproofing of building as required – repairing holes, sealing windows and doors, screening gaps under eaves to prevent birds nesting etc.
- Painting and cleaning as required.
A storage facility also needs to be secure. The methods available to secure premises are varied and range in cost, but at the minimum a storage building should have secure locks on doors and windows, and firm policies regarding keys and access. Other options include:
- Alarm systems – these can often be linked to security services or to the Police.
- Security checks after hours, carried out by a commercial company (eg Chubb).
- On-site security guards.
- Video cameras.
Suitable Storage Locations
While it is often not the case, you may be able to choose the location of your storage room. If possible, choose a room with the following characteristics:
- Dry and cool – basements, rooms on the south side of the building and rooms with salt damp are more likely to be damp. Attic spaces, upper stories or rooms with skylights, lots of windows and/or no insulation are more likely to be warm. Rooms adjacent to kitchens, bathrooms or plant rooms are more likely to have problems with humidity.
- Buffered from external conditions – outside walls, chimneys, skylights and large numbers of windows will make the internal environment less stable. A room in the middle of a building, surrounded on all sides by other rooms, will be the most stable environment.
- Does not contain water pipes, or have water pipes, gutters or water heaters above the ceiling or within the walls. This will reduce the chance of leaks, pest infestation and high humidity.
- Accessible. If you have a lot of large items in your collection, you will need to consider the size of nearby doors and corridors.
- Secure. Doors should be lockable. Restricted access is desirable – eg visitors are only allowed in under staff supervision.
The choice of storage furniture is also important – this is the second layer of protection for collection items. Storage furniture needs to be made of material that is sturdy and will not contribute to the deterioration of the collections.
It is best to store collections inside cabinets wherever possible. Material on open shelves can be protected by using curtains or dustcovers.
Often storage furniture consists of hand-me-downs that may not be ideal in their construction, but can be retrofitted to suit collections – eg by lining wooden shelves with a barrier material.
- Powder-coated metal cabinets, shelves and draws are the most inert storage furniture available. Place protective top shelves on units where they are lacking. Pad shelves and draws with a thin layer of foam or paper.
- Constructing curtains out of Tyvek or cotton fabric is useful to protect objects stored on open shelves against dust and water leaks. Curtains can be simple sheets attached with Velcro or more complicated blinds with pull-strings.
- Allow a minimum of 150mm (more if possible) between the floor and shelved material. Do not stack or store collection material on floor.
- Provide adequate working space for transfer and retrieval of items within storage spaces.
- Avoid storing collection material in contact with unsealed wood. Use a barrier layer of Tyvek or Mylar to prevent contact. This is a good precaution to take with any wooden storage furniture.
- Try to avoid having collection material project past edge of shelves.
- Avoid storing works on the floor as this puts them at greater risk from damage due to water leaks, humidity and pests. Padded wooden blocks can be placed beneath frames etc that must be stored on the floor, in order to raise them about 150mm above floor level.
Storage Enclosures: Commercial vs. Handmade
Storage enclosures are the third layer of protection for collection items. If the storage environment is good, the need for individual storage enclosures is much less. However, for many items (eg photographs, certificates, fragile items) another layer of protection is desirable. Storing an item inside a box or folder also makes it easier to handle and transport that item safely.
There are many commercial storage enclosures available from conservation supply companies such as Albox Australia and Zetta Florence. There are advantages and disadvantages to both commercial and handmade enclosures – the best option for you will depend on how much time and money you have available. Most organisations use a mix of both for their collections – eg commercial enclosures for the bulk of their collection, and handmade enclosures for special items.
Constructing Storage Enclosures: Principles
There are many “instructions” available on how to make different types of storage enclosures. However, as long as certain principles are followed, you can make up your own enclosures – i.e. you do not have to follow a “recipe”.
- Consider how the item will be accessed when designing your enclosure. For example, a collection of papers could be stored easily and cheaply in an acid-free archive box. However, if it is a high-use collection, it may be worth placing each page into polypropylene sleeves, so that it can be accessed more easily and safely.
- Use good-quality acid-free materials wherever possible. If you are using non-archival boards, foams and other material, cover them with Tyvek or a similar barrier layer so they are not in direct contact with the item.
- Consider the nature of the item when designing your enclosure and when choosing storage materials – for example, friable surfaces (eg charcoal, pastel) should not be placed in plastic sleeves, which generate a static charge. Photographic emulsions are more sensitive to chemical damage from poor quality materials.
- Ensure items fit well inside their enclosure – not too tight or too loose. Use padding material to achieve a good fit inside pre-made boxes that are not an exact fit for items.
- Ensure the finished enclosure is not too heavy – eg limit the number of glass plate negatives or lantern slides in one box and label the box so that people are aware of its weight and fragility.
- Ensure the item is well supported inside its enclosure – eg provide supportive padding for fragile components.
- Ensure the enclosure does not put pressure or abrade fragile parts of the item – eg sharp Mylar or paper edges may mark the surface of some items.
- Ensure the enclosure is secure – i.e. so that the item can’t fall out and so that it is difficult for pests/dust etc to access the item.
- If using PVA and other adhesives to construct storage enclosures, allow the box or folder to air for several days before placing the item inside. This allows harmful volatile gases to escape.
- Avoid adhering materials to the items as much as possible – eg use photo-corners instead of hinges where possible.
If you follow these general guidelines, you can re-fit commercial products or invent your own enclosures to suit the storage needs of any item.
Introduction to Materials
Good and bad qualities
The most important qualities for storage materials for paper-based collections are as follows:
- Inert – neutral pH or alkaline-buffered.
- Does not contain acidic material - eg. lignin, alum
- Good physical strength – eg. long-fibred papers are stronger than short-fibred papers
- Suitable finish – high-gloss surfaces do have some applications (eg for photographic storage) but should not be clay-coated.
- Neutral colours – colours (eg red, black, yellow etc) can fade over time and may run if they become wet, damaging the object. Sticking to cream/white/beige and similar colours is recommended.
- Some plastics are coated for various applications. If you are buying (say) polypropylene from a supplier that is not a conservation specialist, check if the material is in its “pure” form.
See the section “Useful Materials and Suppliers” for more information on materials that are suitable and unsuitable for storage of collections.
The composition of commercial products can change at any time – a material that has been reliable for years may suddenly become unsuitable when the manufacturers change their “recipe”. Even batches can vary in quality, or colour. Often, stock lines are discontinued, and you must search for a suitable replacement.
Carrying out your own testing is useful, to ensure you are getting products of suitable quality. It can be difficult to check the quality without special equipment, but for starters a simple pH pen (available from Conservation Suppliers) allows you to see at a glance whether your new paper is acid-free. Other methods include:
- Chemical spot tests, to determine whether papers contain lignin or alum/starch sizing.
- Fibre analysis, to determine what kind of pulp has been used – eg mechanical woodpulp, grasses, cotton, flax etc.
- The 'Oddy Test”, where samples are placed in a jar along with metal coupons. If the metal coupons tarnish, this indicates the presence of certain undesirable compounds.
Sometimes suppliers will specify if a product meets with certain Australian Standards. For example, the “Eternity” symbol signifies that the product meets the standards specified by the National Archives of Australia. These specifications can be useful when your own resources for testing materials are limited.