By Laura Hicken, Assistant Registrar
We are used to seeing curators and collections staff in museums wearing gloves whenever they handle artifacts. These gloves serve many purposes, including protecting artifacts from the dirt and oils on our hands. At the Museum we avoid using the classic white cotton gloves curators traditionally wear for a couple of reasons. First, the fabric gloves do not prevent slipping when handling smooth artifacts such as glassware. Second, the fabric fibers of the gloves can be problematic and snag on objects, such as fragile paper materials or wood. The nitrile gloves we prefer have a latex feel and can aid in gripping smoother artifacts to prevent slipping, and have no fibers to catch on rougher artifacts.
What you may not know is that gloves are just as important to the safety of staff as they are to the objects we handle. Due to the nature of the Museum’s mission and artifacts, collections staff frequently come into contact with materials that have been stored outdoors for long periods of time, are dirty or rusting, or have sharp edges. Wearing gloves, and changing them often, is one of the ways that we are able to protect ourselves while also protecting the artifacts.
An example of this challenge came in the form of a recent donation to the Museum’s permanent collection. This Paint Chip Sample Stand, donated by Barbara Trelstad in honor of Derek Trelstad, is a beautiful eye-catching display that supports the Museum’s mission to tell the story of design in the built environment. It also presented some immediate handling challenges to collections staff. When F.W. Devoe & Co. was founded lead paint was not known to be toxic.. In addition to being painted with lead paint, the paint chips are flaking slightly, so staff knew they needed to be extra careful when handling this particular artifact.
White cotton gloves would have aggravated the flaking paint, but the use of nitrile gloves allowed staff to handle the Sample Stand without causing damage to the artifact or getting any lead paint flecks on their hands. With patience and care, the artifact has been safely cataloged and installed in the Museum’s current exhibition Cool & Collected: Recent Acquisitions.