Demystifying Artifact Cleaning


There are two types of cleaning processes to consider when a dirty museum object confronts you: 

dry cleaning = mechanical process                          wet cleaning = chemical process

 Dry Cleaning 

First determine whether accretions on the artifact are a result of the object’s history of use.  For example, at our recent Wood & Metals Workshop a participant brought in a metal flour measure with white residue around the rims of the piece.  Our guest presenter, Conservator Jane Bynon, recommended leaving the piece as-is.  To clean the flour residue would be to eliminate an important part of the artifact.  If by remaining on the artifact, the historic accretion poses a danger to the supporting material, then cleaning it off may be the best option.

 If potentially damaging dust and/or grime coat the object, try one or more of the following three products and methods for removal: 

1. electrostatically charged dust cloth:  We’ve written about “dust bunnies” made from tyvek in an earlier post; these are worth trying as well as other effective dust cloths.  The electrostatic charge allows the cloth to attract particles without the use of sprays or oils. 

2.  brush and vacuum: a soft natural bristle brush like this Japanese hake brush, made from sheep hair is ideal for smaller objects. (If a brush has a metal ferrule, it can be covered with tape to protect artifact damage.)  A larger, horsehair brush from Uline is a good option for larger, less delicate pieces.  Cover the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner with cheesecloth, a nylon screen, or even polyester stockings; hold the covered nozzle close (but not up against) the artifact; and brush toward the nozzle.  If possible, invest in a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter vacuum for collection care, as it will trap most mold spores, pollen, and dirt particles.

3. soot sponge:  Unlike other sponges, you should not rub with a soot sponge.  Just press gently on the object’s surface and the sponge picks up some stubborn accretions (like soot) that other dry methods will not.  Because soot sponges are made of rubber, they are a tarnishing agent and their use around tarnish-prone metals should be avoided.

 Wet cleaning

Identify the composition and condition of the material you want to clean.  Ideally, consult a conservator for advice on methods and products to use in wet cleaning.  Orvus paste soap or flakes of ivory soap dissolved in distilled water are appropriate for wet cleaning for artifacts that meet the following material and condition requirements.  Be very careful in the selection and use of solvents. 

  • If the material is wood, be sure it is painted or stained and the finish is stable before attempting wet cleaning. 
  • Textiles must be rather sturdy, cotton or linen, and undyed
  • Distilled water and ethanol are appropriate for cleaning most metals with no evidence of active corrosion.  For example, one of our workshop participants works in a coastal NC museum that recently acquired a large collection of 19th– & early 20th-century tools.  The pieces had been stored in a rodent-infested area before coming to the museum.  Of course, she wants to be able to disinfect the pieces—ethanol, or denatured alcohol, is a safe solution for many of them.
  • Ceramics must be glazed, without cracks or chips, for safe wet cleaning. 

About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on September 27, 2011, in cleaning, collections care, Connecting to Collections, workshops and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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