The Safe Handling of Objects

Written by Jamie Rigsby, Farmers Branch Historical Park, 2010.   ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!

Few museums or living history sites have conservators on staff. Therefore, the first line of defense to prevent or suspend damage to artifacts are the curators, collections managers, interpreters or any other person on staff who comes into proximity of the collection. Most of the damage caused to works of art is preventable, and good handling and storage techniques can make a big difference in the preservation of a collection.

DAR Museum
DAR Museum

Before handling any object, here are a few questions to consider:

  1. Is it necessary/safe to move the object?
  2. Where are you going?
  3. What is the best way to pick it up?
  4. Do you have the right equipment/manpower to move it?

The Three Main Factors of Objects Handling: You, The Environment, and The Object


  • Remove jewelry, name tags, belts or anything that could scratch or catch on an object.
  • Pull back hair and loose clothing that could get caught on an object.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Wear gloves. White cotton gloves are appropriate for most handling procedures. Use nitrile gloves when moving objects with slick surfaces like glass or ceramics, or any surface that could catch on or attract cotton fibers such as fragile paper or veneered wood.
  • Keep your gloves clean, and try not to touch anything but the object you are moving. Be careful not to touch your face or hair as you may transfer oils to an object.
  • Use both hands and move slowly.
  • Update inventory records immediately.

The Environment

  • Plan the route you are going to take from one place to another.
  • Measure doorways or narrow spaces to be sure the object will pass through easily.
  • Make a place for the object to avoid having to move something else while the object is in your hands.
  • Move any tripping hazards or things that you could bump into on the way to the new space.
  • No plants, food, drinks, or smoking in the collections area.
  • Use pencils, not pens, when working near collections, as pencil marks are often easier to remove than ink.

The Object

  • Treat each object you handle like it is the only one in existence.
  • Find the center of gravity of an object and use both hands to move it.
  • Move any parts (i.e. lid to a teapot) separately.
  • Stabilize any loose components (i.e. doors on a cabinet).
  • Don’t pick up any object by handles, rails, or rims.
  • Use carts to move objects or boxes whenever possible.
  • Don’t push, pull, or drag any object across a surface.

Sometimes being thorough and methodical can do more for your collection than spending money on state-of-the-art equipment. As with the medical field, the first rule of conservation is “Do no harm.” Beyond that, do the best you can!

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Jamie Rigsby, “Caring for Collections with a Small Budget, Little Time and Limited Staffing: The Safe Handling and Storage of Objects” in Carol Kennis Lopez, ed., Proceedings of the 2010 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 131-135.

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