Deck the Halls

Whether you greet the holidays with grins or groans, decorating for Christmas is a crucial activity at most cultural heritage institutions. Special holiday programs are important for community outreach and often serve to attract new audiences. The winter holidays provide opportunities for some groups to be engaged with your institution creatively, by allowing them to participate and, in some cases, even design Christmas decorations.

Christmas decorations at the Iredell House in Edenton, NC (

Despite the benefits of Christmas decorating for your site, these activities present several dangers to your collection. Depending on your situation, you can either eliminate or mitigate them.

More people moving around collection items increases the possibility of mechanical damage to artifacts. Mitigation:

  1. Limit the numbers allowed to work in an area at any giving time.
  2. Provide training in object handling to all involved in decorating beforehand.

Displaying real vegetation on or near artifacts heightens the risk of moisture damage and insect infestation. Switching to artificial vegetation is the best solution, but institutional traditions and community expectations often demand real fruit and greenery. Mitigation:

  1. Do not use collection ceramics (no matter how stable the glaze appears) as vessels for real vegetation. Water and any moisture from decay will seep into small chips, cracks, and crazing and may stain the artifact.
  2. Place a mylar barrier layer on tabletops and mantels that hold various arrangements. This will help protect the wood or stone from the moisture real plant materials contain.
  3. Insect monitoring traps will help track insects that come along with decorative vegetation. Documenting an increase in trapped insects or new species may strengthen future arguments against the use of live materials

A wide variety of artificial boughs, flowers, and foods can help outfit your site in holiday finery. Remember that historic structures and architectural elements are your institution’s primary artifacts—whether or not they are accessioned. Because plastic pine boughs, for instance, can be even more abrasive than real ones, take care to place ribbons or other soft fabrics at strategic points to help protect historic woodwork. Avoid staple guns and other destructive methods of attachment.

If you are able to shift away from real vegetation, new primary-source research can help lessen the sense of loss that docents and other community members may feel about forgoing real greenery. Basing artificial decorations on holiday descriptions from the time and place of your site’s interpretation can make history come alive in new ways for participants. Several artificial plant companies will even produce items according to your institution’s customized specifications. Most members of your audience will concede that it’s better to share a real story about the past at Christmastime than to harbor insects and fungi from the present.

Does your institution invite community participation in its holiday decorating process? What changes has your organization made in its decorations over time?


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 November 25, 2011, in collections access, collections care, collections management, Exhibitions, historic houses, historic sites, museums, public programs and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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