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Gloves or no gloves?

Glove: Fact or Fiction

To wear gloves or not to wear gloves? This is a question archaeologist and historians have been debating for decades. Traditionally gloves were used when handling all artifacts, but new evidence suggests that wearing gloves might actually do more harm than good.

Read the following statements and try to determine whether they are  fact, or just a myth! Once you have your answer, scroll down to see if you are correct!

Good luck!

#1: People have oils in their skin that can be harmful to artifact(s) they handle.

#2: You don’t need to wear gloves when handling manuscripts, touching them is actually good!

#3:  You need to wear gloves when handling all textiles and furniture, the wood and fabric will decay if you touch it.

#4:  All gloves do the same thing, and provide the same protection.

#5: Wearing gloves is necessary when handling bone

Jesuit Artifacts

Answers:

#1: People have oils in their skin that can be harmful to artifact(s) they handle. Answer: Fact!

While you might not be able to see it, these oils can leave a film on artifacts that deteriorate over time and damage the artifacts. Skin secretes oils, salts, and other wastes that react with certain materials. For example, something as simple as a finger print on a piece of metal can cause corrosion and irreversible damage. The damage can take weeks, and sometimes decades! (Be careful with that coin collection!)

 #2: You don’t need to wear gloves when handling manuscripts, touching them is actually good! Answer: Fact!

The necessity of wearing gloves when handling manuscripts is a common misconception.  Manuscripts are not typically made out of paper like modern books, but rather a material called vellum.  Vellum is a form of paper that was commonly used throughout the Middle and Early Modern ages.  It is made out of calf skin and could be made into many shapes and sizes to produce scrolls, letters, and large books. The process of turning the skin into vellum involves: cleaning, bleaching, and stretching the skin into the desired shape, and finishing it with a treatment of lime or chalk to help keep the ink from bleeding. If the manuscript is made of vellum, the oils in your hands are actually good for replenishing the moisture in the material which can harden and become brittle with age. It is recommended that manuscripts are handled at least a few times per year by clean dry hands in order to help keep the pages from breaking.

Fun Fact: All declarations made by the British Parliament are still printed on vellum!

#3:  You need to wear gloves when handling all textiles and furniture, the wood and fabric will decay if you touch it. Answer: Myth!

While gloves are required for handling most textiles and wooden artifacts, gloves are not always the safest option. When dealing with small wooden artifacts, or furniture pieces, the gloves can cause the handler to lose their grip on the artifact as the make an already slippery surface even slipperier. When deciding whether or not to wear gloves one must always weigh the pros and cons; sometimes no gloves are the safest bet!

#4: All gloves do the same thing, and provide the same protection. Answer: Myth!

There are many different kinds of gloves that are used for different kinds of material, and these gloves have different purposes. The two main types of gloves used in museums and archives are:

  • Disposable vinyl or latex gloves: These are non-absorbent, making them good for objects that are dusty; they are also useful when dealing with artifacts that have a rough surface as they have no fibers that can get caught.  These types of gloves can also give the handler more grip on a smooth artifact.
  • Cotton gloves: These are good for clean objects that are not very rough or very smooth. However, there has been a shift amongst museologists and archivists recently that discredits the use of this type of glove– as their thickness and seams can restrict feeling, and the gloves don’t stop moisture and sweat from leaving the handler’s hands!

#5: Wearing gloves is necessary when handling bone. Answer: Fact!

Whenever bones of any kind are being handled it is nessissary to wear gloves, not only for the artifacts protection, but also for the handlers. Bones can contain bacteria, while most of the time the bacteria has vanished, traces can still be present which can get someone sick! Further, bones are sensitive material that can be deteriorated by the oils in your hands.

Conclusion:

We hope you did well on the Fact or Myth and that you learned a lot about the artifact handling process. Feel free to get your (bare) hands on some artifacts with our Education Programs or our hands-on displays in MOA’s permanent exhibit.

In case you were still wondering, below is the complete list of artifacts that require gloves before handling based on guidelines set by the Museum Of London. (But remember, when it comes to gloves it is best to use your own judgment to determine what is the safest way to handle an artifact!)

  • All metals
  • Painted furniture
  • Lacquered or gilded surfaces
  • Anything made from plaster
  • Taxidermy
  • Geological specimens
  • Plastics
  • Photographic items
  • Unglazed ceramics
  • Human and animal remains

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