Why aren’t you wearing gloves? The conservators’ guide to object handling in the British Museum

Why aren’t you wearing gloves? The conservators’ guide to object handling in the British Museum


A question that we often get asked is why
conservators sometimes wear gloves and sometimes don’t when handling museum objects. Although we emphasise wearing gloves when
handling objects, there are actually no set rules. The conservator makes a decision on whether
or not to wear gloves depending on the material, the task and the nature and fragility of the
object. The diversity of objects requires that we
assess each object individually and make the right decision. One of the few object types that we work with
that you don’t need to use gloves with is what we call ‘brown furniture’. Brown furniture
objects are often jointed, they’re wooden, and they have a veneer on them and what you
tend to find is that, with the exception of highly decorative French polished surfaces,
these objects are robust enough and their surface coatings are robust enough for us
to be able to handle them without gloves. When handling metal objects gloves are normally
worn in order to avoid damaging the object. Acids and oils from fingers can have a corrosive
effect on metals – in particular this is a problem with historical metals – these can
etch into the surface, can be very difficult to remove and can ultimately affect the integrity
of the object. An important aspect of wearing nitro-gloves
is not just to protect the objects but also to protect the people handling the objects.
Many of the objects in our collection have components that are inherently toxic or hazardous.
There are many other objects that have been purposely contaminated such as poisoned weapons. As organic materials are particularly vulnerable
to being attacked by pests they were treated with a vast array of pesticides from the 18th
century up until the 1990s. That is why it is crucial to wear gloves when handling objects
with suspected or confirmed contamination. Wearing gloves also protects us from hazardous
substances. For example, mould can sometimes be found on ceramic objects, as in the case
of this terracotta figurine. When handling hazardous objects conservators always make
sure to dispose of gloves after use. In the past, conservators at the British Museum
wore white cotton gloves and apparently each conservator had only one pair. Nowadays, conservators
prefer to wear disposable, nitrile gloves which will protect them from objects and visa
versa. There are a few main points when choosing
the right glove. Firstly: the size. It is very important to
wear the right sized glove in order to prevent any handling damage to the objects. Secondly: the thickness of the glove. Obviously,
the thicker gloves are more protective for us, but they also create problems for our
manual dexterity. Thirdly, not to wear dirty or torn gloves
as this defeats the main purpose of wearing gloves in the first place. When we conserve documents for Prints and
Drawings, we don’t usually use gloves. We handle them with dry, clean hands. Hand washing
will remove the dirt and the natural oils from hands and is an effective alternative
to using gloves. When working with wall paintings we generally
wear gloves to protect the objects. There are fragile pigments on the surface and the
oils on our hands will affect the pigment and the colour. They also might wear away
the surface. The gloves just prevent damage, and in this case we’ve created an edge to
handle the objects so we avoid touching the object itself. When treating archaeological objects such
as painted polychrome Egyptian coffins we tend to wear gloves. We want to make sure
that we’re not transferring any dirt or dust that’s on the surface to other areas on the
object as well as on to ourselves. From a health and safety perspective, Egyptian pigments
were actually made from ground minerals, and this is why the colours remain so vibrant
today. However, some of the pigments are actually made from toxic minerals such as orpiment
and realgar which is used to make some yellows as well as some reds and these can be hazardous
to your health if ingested. When we deal with smaller and more delicate tasks we use tweezers
and this actually means that you don’t have to touch the surface of the object. So sometimes
you’ll see conservators not wearing gloves because you’re not handling the object. Often as Textile Conservators we choose not
to wear gloves and work with our bare hands. That is because sometimes we really need that
extra sensitivity through our fingertips to be able to carry out our work and also to
really understand the inherent fragility and strengths of the materials that we’re working
with. As you can see conservators wear gloves depending
on the type of objects and the work they carry out on them. And when there’s any doubt on
how to handle objects they are the best people to get advice from.

95 Replies to “Why aren’t you wearing gloves? The conservators’ guide to object handling in the British Museum”

  1. Nice. I’d be pretty critical of conservators who didn’t wear gloves normally without this.  
    I wonder if Egyptian tombs got a rep for curses from looters dying from toxic minerals. Unlike the Tutankhamen excavators who all died very different deaths (including old age), dying of the same mysterious symptoms might truly frighten ancient looters.

  2. This channel is amazing, the British museum was one of my favourite museums already but this is next level.

  3. wow, this was extremely interesting! also, that egyptian coffin was absolutely stunning, I would love to hear more about it

  4. I greatly enjoy the content provided by the british museum online. Thank you for another very informative video. Much more interesting than I originally thought when I read the title. So much care goes into even such seemingly small decisions. It shows the passion all the conservators have for their job.

  5. If heard that melody now in several videos by different users, anyone knows what the song at beginning and end is?

  6. I was an art con undergrad and when I was working in the special collections archives and my boss was handling cuneiform tablets I was absolutely shocked she wasn't using cotton gloves but didn't ask, I've just been shocked ever since

  7. I really like that this channel doesn't just show "old objects" and their history, (though they are certainly amazing and already worth it), but also gives fascinating insights into it's techniques, and is so connected to their audience. It makes them so much more relatable, and understandable for… non-professionals.
    I'd love to see more these.

  8. As a Swedish museum curator, it is very interesting to see how these issues are dealt with in other countries.
    A very good feature.👍

  9. Very insightful video. I also really like to see the diverse and knowledgeable staff that does such great work to preserve the wonderful objects of the British Museum.

  10. I volunteer at a local museum in Saanichton BC Canada; this also depends upon the capabilities of the museum. If something is beyond our ability to conserve, we send it to the "white glove" curators at the Royal British Columbia Museum or another better funded establishment. Also key is the distinction between a capitol "M" Museum which follow a generally conservative role and Historical Societies, which focus on restoration and re-enactment.

  11. Which Twitter account is associated with this YouTube channel? I can't see the clearest way to share this.

  12. I was wondering about this ever since I first saw Dr. Finkel handling an old cuneiform tablet without gloves. I remember initially assuming that it was some replica, until later he was handling bare-handed a real specimen, which almost freaked me out. Thank you for this explanation!! 🙂

  13. Ive handled medieval books, always without gloves, but with clean bare hands. When turning pages, gloves would get in the way and increase chances of bending or tearing edges. Also the animal skin pages wouldnt mind some of your skin oil to remain supple.(Although when I'm done, I can't wait to wash my hands- some manuscript paints were toxic, and how do I know I wasnt touching plague germs or something–LOL)

  14. The oldest things I have are a 17th century brass sector and a early 17th century book. I absolutely encourage gloveless handling. It can be a mind-blowing connection to the object and its history.

  15. Look your search history you will find vs .png 😂 the most used png of all time. I have used it my self 😉

  16. Thank you so much for this! I'm studying conservation in Argentina and your Youtube channel keeps my passion alive 😍. I wish I could work there one day!

  17. So the red and yellow parts of a sarcophagus are potentially toxic. Does that contaminate the neighbouring colours as well, or are those possibly safe?

  18. I feel like this is their passive aggressive response to the comments. It can feel a little insulting to the experts in the field when ordinary folk try and tell them what they should do like they know better.

  19. I wish you'd shown someone handling cuneiform without gloves so I could tell the people I work with to relax about that..

  20. I usually wear gloves when working with fossils since they can be very dusty due to the rock they are found in and it also means I am less likely to get small cuts on my fingertips from the scalpel used to clean the fossils with since the rubber is more flexible and durable so it wont get cut.

  21. This is something I have really been wondering about. Especially I have noticed in some historic documentaries where old books and manuscripts were handled, some with gloves and some without. I wondered why, for instance, a book from Elizabethan times would be handled with gloves but a hand written manuscript from maybe the 1400's would be handled with bare hands. It never made sense as I thought acids from our fingers could destroy any paper.

  22. BRAVO ! It should be mandatory for all museums, librairies or collections around the world to watch this video! (It seems like such common sense and yet, how often do you still see curators stuck with the “always worn one pair of white gloves fits all tasks” bad tradition!) Well done British Museum!

  23. now we can start asking if they should wear masks so they don't breathe on the objects – or breathe in any dust from those toxic things! (especially around that Egyptian coffin!!)

  24. I've always enjoyed history but never been great at school (grades were ok but I never did my homework and hardly turned up! 🙁 )
    But I just wanted to say these series have really woken that passion for history back up (I spent a lot of time visiting castles with my Dad as a kid)
    I'm sure working with such historical fascinations is reward in itself but I hope it's rewarding to know you've sparked that childlike wonder and curiosity in a 24 year old man

    Who knows I might even go back and give higher education another try and join you guys in a few years! If not I might just keep showing up at museums until you get used to me 😉

    Great video loved it!

  25. Tarihi ve sanatsal değerleri muhafaza için çalışan ilk defa bi türk gördüğüm için çok mutlu oldum. Bazen kendi değerlerimize baktığımda nasıl korunduklarını görünce çok üzülüyorum.

  26. Can you tell us what the hardest thing to conserve is? My brain says maybe paintings or papers as a guess?

  27. Holy shit, that Egyptian sarcophagus is the real deal!?! It looks like it's 25 years old, maybe 50! Yeah those pigments are insanely vibrant, really makes you wonder what the guy who decided to use them would think knowing just how appropriate a choice he made!

  28. I'm deeply hooked to understand how you work with each museum artifact . Makes us feel like we are working alongside of your museum

  29. If it’s a ‘decision’, I think some have not made the best decision, esp when handling incunabula. IMO, gloves should always be worn. Even metal and stone can be contaminated by body oil. Gloves don’t prevent the transfer of existing dust/dirt already on an object. I’m not buying into impaired manual dexterity. My two cents.

  30. i am going to have to watch this a second time because the first time through, i was paying too much attention to the diverse array of accents. i like how cosmopolitan the staff is.

  31. I love this! I’ve never fully paid attention to weather or not people are wearing gloves in different instances. It’s really cool.

  32. I worked in a rare books department for a few years and 99% of the time we/our patrons didn't wear gloves because we were more concerned with having a less nuanced sense of dexterity which would increase the risk of tearing or bending the pages. Gloves make us less aware of how much pressure we're using.

  33. Working in public archives, I ask my patrons to wear gloves when handling rare or fragile documents. It is easier than guessing when they last washed their hands.

  34. A Turkish conservator? I am really proud of Dr. Duygu Çamurcuoğlu, she should be a role model for Turkish youth but I learned of her just now!

  35. always pissed me off seeing professionals working with priceless antiques in their bare mits, regardless of organic material, metal, or wood, no matter how "robust it is." This video just reinforced my opinion that all conservators should wear gloves, and i will continue to get pissed off. as y'all were.

  36. So basically unless dealing with poison or filth it just isn't that important. Just ike everyone elses consideration of handling objects.

  37. I have worked closely with Greek curators; on the whole they are a conscientious, meticulous lot, but one must be careful to avoid exposing them to music 🎶 while they work — inexplicably, they undergo a complete metamorphosis and begin breaking things.

  38. I collect ephemeral (items designed for a short use and typically disposed/recycled – I.e. tickets, brochures, magazines et cetera) in my case, newspaper covers.
    What I have learned concerning gloves is this. After I do an initial deacidification (news print is very acidic, will yellow and crumble with time, and needs to be neutralized) with gloves, I never again wear gloves. I have found that clean dry hands are far preferable and safer than nitrile/latex gloves (you must wash hands/arms frequently though). You have fine dexterity in the hands, while the gloves tend to give far too much “traction” for newspapers and will cause you to tear delicate items. I should add, that when handling large items like posters and news print, you should wash your arms along with your hands – as you may have to rest items on your arms while articulating into holders.
    This has been my experience from many years of handling, storing, and preserving/collecting. I collect newspaper covers of every major event in my lifetime – lets me remember and see how greatly society has changed (which is a lot!). As a side note, this hobby is getting ever more difficult with the loss of so many physical newspaper printers.
    Hope this information is beneficial to someone. Now, with numismatics (coins specially), horologists, fabric preservation and the like, I would almost always recommend gloves; where even the slightest acids from the body creates damage. Learning this the hard way with silver I had stored away. All the best.

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