Collection Housekeeping Guide
A well-designed housekeeping plan not only keeps collections clean and dust-free, but also allows staff time to regularly monitor the state of the collection. Housekeeping can also serve as a low-budget way to support other collections care activities like pest management.
DEVELOPING A COLLECTIONS MAINTENANCE PROGRAM
Housekeeping tasks will vary depending on the size, use, and type of collection. A regular schedule of daily, weekly, monthly, and semi-annual to annual tasks ensures that the entire collection receives attention and care. It is just as important to make sure that a collection is not over-cleaned as it is to make sure that it is cleaned, which is why a housekeeping log is an important part of a collections maintenance program.
The Housekeeping Log
A housekeeping log is a great way to keep track of what has been done and what has yet to be done. Record any changes in the status of an object or collection and update the log upon completion of housekeeping tasks. If the collection also has a pest log, the two documents can support one another. Although the format can vary, a housekeeping log typically includes the following: task, date, notes, and staff member name.
Cyclical Housekeeping Schedules
The following schedule is a suggestion and can be tailored to the particular needs of a collection.
Magnetic dusting cloths—for example, Dust Bunny Cloths—are chemical-free and use electrostatic charge to attract dust. Do not use feather dusters or cloths impregnated with chemicals or cleansers, as these can potentially leave a damaging residue behind. 100% cotton, chemical-free rags (clean diaper cloths) may also be used.
Soft, natural hair artist brushes, for dusting small or fragile areas (note: brushes used for dusting collections should only be used for this purpose)
Cheesecloth or muslin for use as a filter to vacuum very fragile or flaking items (should be washed prior to use)
Vacuum for collections care
Ammonia (note: should not be used near metals or on unstable glass)
Orvus WA Paste
Murphy’s Oil soap (for mopping floors)
Renaissance Wax or Butcher’s Wax
The following are general guidelines. For complex, delicate, or fragile objects, always consult a conservator before proceeding with any cleaning regimen.
Bindings and text block edges can be cleaned with a cloth or vacuum. If the spine or boards of a book are loose or detached, avoid any cleaning procedures until they have been stabilized. If the binding is in stable condition and the text block is only lightly soiled, magnetic cloths are appropriate. If a book is very dusty or dirty (or if a book has deckled edges), it is preferable to use a vacuum to avoid pushing dirt into paper fibers or damaging delicate edges. Use a soft natural brush or brush attachment on the vacuum, and a micro-tool attachment meant for small areas. Low suction is preferable.
When books are removed for cleaning, an entire row of books should be removed from each shelf so that the books and shelf can be safely dusted at the same time. Ensure that the books are kept in the same order when they are moved. Be sure to carefully handle and properly support the books during this process, as it is easy to inadvertently to cause damage.
Hold the book firmly but gently closed, to avoid pushing dirt or dust in between the pages. The book should be tilted forward so that the spine is higher than the edge of the text block; this will prevent dirt from getting pushed down into the spine or the text block.
Wipe or brush away from the spine, cleaning the top of the book first. After dust has been removed from this area, the other edges of the book can be dusted, including the cover.
Work from the top shelf to the bottom shelf to avoid pushing dust onto surfaces that have already been cleaned. Transfer an entire shelf to a prepared holding space (such as a worktable or book truck) a few volumes at a time. Once all of the books on a shelf are safely out of the way, the shelf can be wiped down with a clean rag or vacuumed. If desired, a damp, clean rag can then be used to wipe the shelf down with a dilute solution of a disinfectant.
If a damp rag is used, the shelf must be completely dry before books are returned. For this reason, it may be best to avoid using a damp wipe on wooden shelves due to longer drying times.
Dust ceramics with a soft natural brush monthly. Consider covering the ferrule of the brush with something soft to avoid scratching the ceramic surface. Inspect the object for weaknesses or areas of concern before proceeding. Do not wash ceramics without consulting a conservator.
4. Ivory, Bone, Horn, Antler
Dust objects with a soft brush once a year. Some ivory and smooth non-porous bone may be cleaned with water and mild soap, however this should not be done without first consulting an objects conservator to determine whether this is appropriate.
5. Framed Paintings
After checking that the surface of a frame is stable (not flaking or crumbling), use a soft brush or wool duster to gently dust from the top down. If necessary, gently buff the glass or Plexiglas covering the surface of the painting with a soft, clean cloth. Be careful not to touch the surface of the painting.
6. Glass Objects
Most glass objects can be dusted gently with a dry cloth every two weeks. Handle glass with clean, dry hands instead of gloves. Dirty glass objects may be washed once yearly in a diluted solution of warm water and Orvus paste (1/4 teaspoon per gallon of water) or a solution of ammonia and water. Ensure that there are no previous repairs or areas of stress before washing. (Note: ammonia should not be used near metals or on unstable glass). Glass with painted or gilded decoration should not be wet cleaned.
When preparing the cleaning space, pad a separate dishpan (or similar container) with Volara, towels, or another soft, clean material that will provide cushioning and help avoid breakage. Wash one object at a time and change the water frequently. Use minimal water and do not let the items to soak. Drain the object on paper towels and use a soft, clean cloth for drying. Take care not to put pressure on the object or to hold it by a handle or stem.
7. Historic Textiles
Stable textiles may be gently vacuumed through a fiberglass screen. If washable, textiles may be hand-washed in a solution of Orvus and warm water and rinsed with distilled water. Always consult a conservator before attempting to clean or wash historic or fragile textiles.
Upholstery on furniture may be vacuumed quarterly through a fiberglass screen, using a row-by-row movement to ensure that the surface is covered. Take care not to drag the vacuum across the upholstered surface.
Textiles in storage should ideally be removed from their housings once a year and inspected for signs of infestation or damage.
8. Metal Objects
Handle metal artifacts with clean gloves to avoid depositing body oils on the object. Metal objects may be lightly dusted with a soft natural brush no more than three times a year; more frequent brushing than this increases the potential for damage. Metal objects may be polished once a year with specially designed treatments, however this should not be undertaken without first consulting a conservator.
Before cleaning, ensure that the mirror is safely secured to the wall or can be held steady by a coworker. Dust with a soft brush from the top down. Clean with an isopropyl alcohol-based glass cleaner only. Consult a conservator before using any cleaning solution on historic mirrors. Mercury mirrors should be only cleaned by a conservator.
10. Wood Objects
Before beginning any cleaning procedure, check the condition of the object’s finish—if it is cracking, flaking, or lifting, do not dust or vacuum. Stable objects may be dusted with a clean, soft rag or Dust Bunny cloth. Never use cloths with raw edges or loose threads. Vacuuming is the most effective and least damaging way to remove dust from stable finished wood surfaces and unfinished wood. For stable furniture surfaces, the soft brush attachment on the vacuum may be used, wiping in the direction parallel to the grain.
On very delicate surfaces, a soft brush can be used to sweep dust into the vacuum on low suction. Objects may be waxed with Renaissance Wax only after consulting a conservator.
HOUSEKEEPING FOR SPECIAL EVENTS
For the many historic houses, libraries, and museums that host events, special attention will need to be paid to housekeeping before and after the event. Precautions are needed when bringing live plants and flowers, food, and beverages into any space, as these items can attract pests, cause stains, and lead to other forms of damage to collection materials. Because of the unique conditions that accompany working in and around collection spaces, many organizations choose to work with a selection of vendors who agree to abide by the established housekeeping rules. The organization’s event policy should include information on housekeeping requirements, cleaning fees, and approved vendors for catering and floral displays.
Plants and Flowers
Potted plants and floral displays must be free of disease and pests and in sterilized soil. Materials sourced by professional florists are typically preferred over those brought in from personal gardens. Any plant and flower arrangements should be inspected by a designated staff member prior to entering the building. Care should be used when transporting vessels containing water. Stamen, which produce pollen, should be removed from flowers. Plants and flowers used for special events should ideally be removed immediately after the end of the event or if this is not possible, within twenty-four hours.
Food and Drink
Areas where food and drink are prepared or served should be thoroughly cleaned before and after use. If food is served in or near areas which also display objects—for example, in a gallery—the use of corrosive chemicals and large amounts of water for clean-up should be minimized or avoided. Clean spills and remove trash as soon as possible to avoid stains, smells, and attracting pests. Make sure the trash cans themselves (or liner bags, if used) are also free of food/trash residue.
DUST: THE (NOT SO) HIDDEN MENACE
Dust is composed of a variety of organic and inorganic material, including pollen, human skin and hair, paper and textile fibers, dirt and road dust, and millions of dust mites. This makes it especially destructive for vulnerable objects; hard or sharp particles can abrade surfaces, while organic particles can cause chemical damage. In addition, dust can increase the relative humidity (RH) around an object. The large surface area covered by dust particles attracts water vapor from the air, slightly increasing the RH in the exact place you don’t want it. Dust is also unsightly, and its presence suggests neglect to visitors of historic houses and museums.
What’s In Your Dust? Using a Dust Atlas
One of the best and most cost-effective ways to manage dust is to identify what it is and where it’s coming from. This helps collections care staff to pinpoint the source of dust in order to manage it and better allocate resources to the areas that need them most. It also ensures that cleaning occurs only as often as necessary, since over-cleaning can put a collection at risk. The National Trust UK has created a Dust Atlas which can be used to identify the substances in a dust sample. It provides instructions for sampling, examination, and identification of the dust collected. The Identification of Dust in Historic Houses, by Brimblecombe and Grossi, is available to download at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/documents/the-identification-of-dust-in-historic-houses.pdf. Clear, microscopically photographed images of dust components are provided for comparison. Monitoring dust is also a good way to track the effectiveness of a newly implemented housekeeping program.
A basic dust monitoring kit includes:
A microscope or hand magnifying lens (10x)
Adhesive labels—paper, Tyvek, vinyl, or Teflon
A slide case for storage
Slide frames to make samples
Preparing the samples is simple; dust deposits may be collected by touching the deposit with the sticky surface of an adhesive label. Alternatively, a label can be left sticky-side-up for several weeks until a sample accumulates. Once a sample is collected, the label may be attached to the back of a microscope slide so that it can be stored and examined. Samples can be prepared for multiple areas to compare dust levels in various parts of a collection.
Choosing a Vacuum for Collections Care
A good vacuum is the most effective way to manage dust. There are many brands and models available, from hip-vacuum to backpack and floor styles, and the style chosen will vary depending upon the needs and budget of the collection. In general, the following features are important to look for when choosing a collections care vacuum:
Variable suction—cleaning fragile objects will require less suction than more stable items
Micro-tool set to vacuum very small areas
HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter, which will remove 99.97% of particles 0.3 microns in diameter or above
For even finer particle removal, an ULPA (Ultra-Low Penetration Air) filter will remove 99.99% of particles 0.12 microns in diameter or above
Fiberglass screen for vacuuming textiles
If possible, avoid using the same vacuum to clean the facilities and clean collections, unless all parts are cleaned thoroughly between uses. If the same vacuum is used to clean both floors and collections, separate hose and tool attachments should be available, and the bag and filter should be replaced before use on collection items. Never vacuum any flaking or particularly delicate object without consulting a conservator first.
It is important to note that having an efficient HVAC system with a HEPA filter can also drastically reduce dust. This doesn’t replace the need to vacuum, but it does help to control the amount of dust in collections.
RESOURCES FOR SUPPLIES
6370 Copps Avenue
Madison, WI 53716
7350-A Lockport Place
Lorton, VA 22079
Conservation Support Systems
PO Box 91746
Santa Barbara, CA 93190
PO Box 4901
Syracuse, NY 13221
Hollinger Metal Edge
9401 Northeast Drive
Fredericksburg, VA 22408
340 Snyder Avenue
Berkeley Heights, NJ 07922
Museum Services Corporation
385 Bridgepoint Way
South Saint Paul, MN 55075
330 Morgan Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11211
517 Main Street
Holyoke, MA 01040
Brimblecombe, Peter and Carlota Grossi. The Identification of Dust in Historic Houses. National Trust, UK, 2011.
Heaver, Melissa. Housekeeping for Historic Homes and House Museums. Washington, DC: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2000.
Lloyd, Helen and Caroline Bendix, et al. Dust in Historic Libraries. National Trust, UK, 2007.
Lloyd, Helen, Carlota Grossi, and Peter Brimblecombe. Low-technology Dust Monitoring For Historic Collections. Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2011): 106-116.
Minnesota Historical Society. Historic Housekeeping Handbook. 2000.
Miromonti, Katherine. “Dust and Housekeeping,” AIC Wiki, 2020. https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Dust_and_Housekeeping
National Park Service. Choosing a Museum Vacuum Cleaner. Conserve O Gram, Number 1/6 (2003).
Northeast Document Conservation Center. Cleaning Books and Shelves. Storage and Handling Preservation Leaflet, 4.3 (2007).
Randolph, Pamela. Museum Housekeeping: Developing a Collections Maintenance Program. Richmond: Virginia Association of Museums Technical Assistance Leaflet, Winter/Spring 1987.
Zachary, Shannon. Managing a Stacks Cleaning Project. Archival Products News, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1997): 1-3. http://www.archival.com/newsletters/apnewsvol5no1.pdf
Updated July 2022.