Collection Care Tips
Did you ever wonder how to care for your silver, if you should wax your furniture, where you can get acid-free paper and mat board or what is the best way to dust? Winterthur's Conservation staff has summarized key information here and placed links to appropriate websites on the Resources page. A complete reference for these and many more questions is The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection, a manual written by Winterthur's conservation staff and available from the bookstore.
You can also view the Care in Handling videos, arranged by material, that we use to train staff at Winterthur.
How Winterthur Cleans
Dust is inherently damaging as well as unsightly. It is abrasive, absorbs moisture and pollutants that can cause deterioration and corrosion, attracts insects, and encourages mold growth. Good air filtration is Winterthur’s first line of defense, but careful, regular dusting and vacuuming is a critical part of preventive conservation for the collection.
Dust stable surfaces with a non-abrasive cotton or synthetic dust cloth that will hold dust without leaving any residue on the object. Test any lint free cloth or product you might use on a windowpane and observe whether it holds the dust without causing any change in the glass such as an oily sheen. Avoid products that contain silicone. Do not dust surfaces with flaking paint or gilding. The same cloths can be used with mops on uncarpeted floors and wood moldings.
Dust complex or fragile surfaces such as intricate ceramics or gilded frames with a very soft long bristle brush moving dislodged dust toward a dust cloth or vacuum nozzle.
Use vacuum cleaners with HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters and adjustable suction for carpets, upholstery and drapes. A nylon mesh screen secured around the nozzle reduces abrasion and prevents any part of the object being sucked into the vacuum which is used at the lowest effective suction as the nozzle is moved gently across the surface. On flat textiles, vacuum through a piece of nylon screen (tape the raw edges) placed on top of the textile to further reduce abrasion. Use micro tool vacuum attachments with soft brushes (available from craft stores) for complex surfaces like carving or the edges of books help firmly closed.
- Light, humidity and temperature all effect the preservation of treasured objects, so creation of a stable environment is the first step in collection care.
- Use blinds, shades or curtains to protect objects from bright or direct sunlight and move particularly sensitive objects (textiles, books, paper and organic materials) to dimmer locations.
- Keep artificial light at a reasonable distance to prevent heat damage and avoid fluorescent lights or sources with a significant ultraviolet component.
- Keep the relative humidity between 40 and 60 percent and the temperature at 72 degrees or less
- Change air filters in the HVAC system regularly to reduce dust.
- Place insect sticky traps in collection areas to monitor for pest activity and use vendors with training in integrated pest management (IPM) to address any problems.
Books, Manuscripts and Ephemera
- Shelve books carefully using bookends to keep them firmly upright. Shelve large and fragile books, especially scrapbooks and photo albums, flat.
- Do not oil or dress leather bindings since this practice contributes to deterioration.
- Use a cradle, wedge or some other support for open books being read or displayed to prevent damaging the binding by forcing the open book flat on a table.
- Provide custom sized book boxes for fragile books with damaged bindings.
- Store manuscripts and ephemera in acid-free enclosures using archival quality paper and/or plastics (uncoated polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene).
- Avoid placing bookcases against poorly insulated exterior walls that trap pockets of high humidity.
Organic Materials (plant fibers, leather, bone, ivory, horn, tortoiseshell)
- Provide an environment with a stable relative humidity to prevent distortion and cracks.
- Do not oil or dress leather objects since this practice contributes to deterioration.
- Never immerse bone, ivory, tortoiseshell and similar materials in water—if the surface is stable, use a lightly moistened cotton swab or cloth to wipe the surface and then dry immediately.
- Be sure any mounts used for display are acid free and provide good overall support.
Ceramics and Glass
- Store fragile objects on lightly padded shelves, surround unstable or top-heavy objects with bean bags to improve stability, and interleave any stacked items with cotton flannel to prevent abrasion.
- Inspect the surface for lifting glaze, cracks or past repairs before cleaning. If the surface is stable, use a lightly moistened cotton swab or cloth to wipe the surface and dry immediately.
- Do not soak ceramics to try and remove stains since some ceramic bodies are porous and can be seriously damaged.
- Protect textiles from dust since washing can be problematic. If they are soiled, vacuum gently as described above.
- Store textiles using acid-free tissue, clean cotton sheets and acid-free boxes. Avoid alkaline (buffered) materials in direct contact with silk or wool.
- Avoid creases in flat textiles or costumes by gently padding them with crumpled tissue. Do not iron fragile or historic textiles.
- Use acid-free materials and spacers to separate textiles from the glass when having textiles mounted and framed.
- Handle photographs wearing white cotton gloves to avoid leaving corrosive fingerprints on the image.
- Store or frame photographs in acid-free enclosures using archival quality paper and/or plastics (uncoated polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene). Since photographs are particularly sensitive to impurities, be sure all materials have passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT).
- Store large photographs, images on brittle mounts and fragile albums flat in acid free boxes.
- Store albums in custom size book boxes.
- Handle metal objects wearing white cotton or latex gloves to avoid leaving corrosive fingerprints.
- To prevent corrosion, keep the humidity as low as possible and dust regularly with a soft cotton cloth.
- Store metal objects on lightly padded shelves, surround unstable or top-heavy objects with bean bags to improve stability, and interleave any stacked items with cotton flannel to prevent scratches and abrasion
- Since metals are particularly sensitive to pollution and out gassing from wood, paint and adhesives, store them in acid-free boxes and use only archival quality paper and/or plastics (uncoated polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene). Store silver in bags made from Pacific silver cloth which contains a tarnish inhibitor.
- Gold, silver, copper and its alloys, and pewter can be gently cleaned with ethyl alcohol on a cotton swab if dusting does not suffice.
Art on Paper (prints, drawings, watercolors)
- Use acid-free materials and spacers to separate the paper from the glass when having objects mounted and framed.
- Avoid hanging objects on poorly insulated outside walls, over radiators, or above fireplaces since these areas experience wide fluctuations in temperature and humidity
- Store unframed objects in mats or acid free folders and boxes.
- Avoid hanging paintings on poorly insulated outside walls, over radiators, or above fireplaces since these areas experience wide fluctuations in temperature and humidity
- If careful examination reveals the surface of the painting is stable (no flaking or areas of distorted or insecure paint), dust it lightly with a soft long bristle brush.
- Make sure the frame, hanging hardware and wires are securely attached and in good condition.
- Secure a piece of foam-core board or acid free cardboard to the back of the stretcher with screws to protect the back of the canvas from grime, debris and physical damage.
Furniture and Wooden Objects
- To prevent cracks and veneer cleavage, avoid placing furniture near radiators, heat vents or other areas where temperature and humidity fluctuate widely. Use a humidifier if necessary during very dry winter conditions.
- Clean soiled surfaces in good condition with a damp cloth, using cotton swabs in carved areas.
- Using paste or butchers wax, lightly wax furniture once or twice a year to protect the surface. Avoid oils and dusting/cleaning sprays, especially those with silicone.