Guidelines for handling and moving your special objects

First considerations

The degree of care you take in handling and moving your collection or special object is an indicator of how you feel about it. If you have decided that you want to care for certain items for future generations, preserving their financial, historical or sentimental value, you will need to treat these differently. Make sure you think about them separately from the expendable domestic objects in constant use in your home.

Give yourself time to find out about your objects' history, materials and the hazards they are subject to. When you need to handle or transport your collection, you will be introducing extra risks; this is the time when items are most likely to be damaged and compromised.

Objects can often appear to be more solid and robust than they are. When touching, doing routine housework or transporting objects short or long distances, do stop and think about vulnerable surfaces, structure and weight - always avoid picking things up by the edges or handles as these are often the most fragile parts of an object (particularly over the course of time) even though they may be the most obvious areas to use. Be aware of where your hands make contact and make sure that they support the weight of the object.

Be prepared. When moving an object even a short distance, it is important to plan what you are doing and (though it seems obvious) where you are going with it. Think first: what are the risks, how many people do you need, what equipment or protection might be useful?

Homo sapiens - the biggest hazard

It has been proved in the Museums world that humans pose the most dangerous threat to collections! These are the kinds of handling damage we are responsible for:

  • Breakages, tears, loose and missing elements, impacts, smudges.
  • Fingerprints etched into polished surfaces.
  • Stains and marks from skin contact, eating, smoking, cosmetics and other domestic chemicals.
  • Introduction of materials and conditions that encourage pests or other environmental damage: foods, other infested objects, poor storage materials, central heating, damp, strong light.

By moving objects around - even within a house or site - we may be subjecting collections or precious objects to: the weather, vibration, microclimates (e.g. when an item is wrapped up in plastic), pests, theft, vandalism, structural damage, steep changes in temperature and humidity.

Particularly vulnerable to being damaged by handling and moving are pastels, watercolours, paintings, ivory, parchment & vellum, musical instruments, barometers, clocks and large complex objects made from different elements. It is often thought that "fragile" materials such as ceramics, glass and textiles are most vulnerable - what tends to happen though is that we take good care of these while neglecting the rest.

What you can do - handling and moving things around your house or site

Good handling involves common-sense measures:

  • Always wear gloves - clean cotton preferably - when handling photographs and vellum or polished or gilded surfaces, particularly with silver, where skin salts can leave a permanent mark.
  • Make sure you have enough space and time when handling objects, so you are not rushed or distracted.
  • Don't smoke, eat or drink in the area, avoid using pens or ink nearby.
  • Make sure you are not wearing anything sharp (jewellery, hair ornaments, buttons) or liable to "snag" tear or scratch your object.

    If you are worried or unsure about what can or cannot be safely touched, ask a conservator. They are experienced in assessing collections' conditions

Even though you may be moving an item over a short distance, it makes sense to plan:

  • Work out how best to remove the item from its current location (just as important for a ceramic vase as for a large painting), what tools, packing materials, supports, extra help will you will need?
  • If anyone else is helping you transport an object, take charge - make sure they are aware of how careful you want them to be - they may not have the same knowledge of the object as you.
  • Is the final destination location clear and can you rest the item along the way, if necessary?
  • Use open boxes or trays to transport smaller items - this might seem excessive but most museums and historic house staff carry even small items in this way.
  • If you judge it necessary, protect vulnerable corners and edges of larger heavy items by wrapping with a protective material such as cardboard, bubblewrap or a foam - make sure any adhesive or tape does not touch the object, and remove these corners as soon as the job is done.
  • For small moves, avoid "wrapping things up". It is better to be able to see your object and be aware of where you are putting your hands. Unraveling items from voluminous packing can cause accidents.

What you can do - transporting items over longer distances, e.g. a car journey or a house move

Ask yourself first: is your collection or item fit to travel? Every object and journey must be assessed on an individual basis. If you are not supervising a move yourself, your objects are especially vulnerable to loss, theft and damage. Make sure you have adequate security and insurance.

    If you are in any doubt about an item's fitness to travel, a conservator can give you an opinion and can recommend how best to reduce risks.

  • Consider the logistics of how, where and who - as above - and prepare your move in advance.
  • Boxing and casing small-to-medium items is sensible for longer distance moves. Always label boxes to identify fragile loads and avoid constant unpacking to find out where items are.
  • Avoid "wrapping up", instead, "float" a fragile object like a ceramic bowl in a matrix of tissue-paper "snowballs". These can be made by wrapping a couple of sheets of acid-free tissue around your hand loosely, and tucking up gently into a flattish ball. Pack 2/3 layers of these into a box, place your item in, pack around tightly with more balls and finish with a few more layers. This system will "hold" an object securely but lightly within a rigid box.
  • It may be more sensible to give larger items such as paintings or furniture corner protection and cover with a simple layer of polythene (for pictures) or blanket (for furniture) as it is important for handlers to see and feel the strongest parts of the structure when picking up.
  • Beware leaving items in temporary packing for too long - damp and condensation can build up. The packing material in contact with the item may also cause problems over time.

    Use good-quality packing materials wherever possible. A conservator can advise on what to use and where to get it.

  • As not everyone who handles an object will have seen it being packed, it is important that all should be labelled properly. Include a list if there are many items in a box. Tie labels onto larger items with linen/cotton tape. Perhaps attach a Polaroid photo of the object to the box or crate. Use a "parts number" system if you have packed an item in several boxes or loads. All this will avoid the pitfalls of unpacking more than once to find out what's where.
  • For a valuable item travelling long distances, consider having a special or case box made. "Travelling frames" can be made for paintings for example.
  • Consider using specialist movers and fine art transporters if you have a valuable or very vulnerable collection.

Consulting a conservator

Conservators specialising in the relevant discipline such as paintings, furniture or ceramics can help you by:

  • Examining your collection or object and giving you specific handling guidelines and advice about the items' condition and suitability to travel.
  • Packing the object or collection for you, or giving you guidance on how to do this yourself.
  • Designing a mount or hard case for the transport of a special item.

In general terms, all accredited conservators, regardless of their speciality, can:

  • Give you useful general advice on handling, transport packing and storage
  • Recommend specialist packers and fine art transportation firms
  • Advise you on ways of reducing the risk of environmental or pest damage
  • Advise you on which materials are safe to use in packing, and where to obtain them

Use the Conservation Register to Find a conservator.

© Icon, the Institute of Conservation 2011.

This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.

The Institute of Conservation would like to acknowledge the support of The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 in the production of this guidance information. Further information on The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and its work is available at www.royalcommission1851.org.uk.