Conservation of museum collections
The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the museum sector in ways that we cannot yet fully predict, especially as far as the economic losses are concerned. Right now, however, forced closings and the absence of most of the staff can already have serious impacts on the conservation and safety of the collections.
Without neglecting all the necessary measures to contain the spread of the disease, as well as those aimed at guaranteeing the safety of the population, museums cannot fail to fulfill their primary function of conserving the material and immaterial heritage of humanity.
Cultural institutions around the World are already showing great resilience and creativity in communicating with their publics remotely. To further help them during these uncertain times we prepared, with the help of the ICOM International Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC), a series of “pandemic guidelines” on how to deal with conservation during the emergency, putting employee safety first:
Please note that these recommendations were written up on April 04, 2020. They take into account the guidelines about preventing the spread of Covid-19 that are continually being updated. Look to your local government and your institution and to WHO, for the most up-to-date guidance on safe behavior and procedures.
1. Recommendations worldwide encourage public institutions to close down until the threat from corona virus is no longer an issue. Only essential staff should be in your institution. This may include security, engineering, and the occasional conservator or collections manager.
2. Prepare lists of staff/expertise who will be on regular duty and others who are available. Establish collaborations with nearby museums or similar institutions to make necessary staff replacement or arrangements in the case staff members of one museum get infected.
3. Viruses deteriorate relatively quickly on surfaces, but can remain active up to 72 hours and different surfaces cause different rates of virus deterioration.
4. Undertake more frequent cleaning of areas where people have access on a daily basis.
5. Consider changing the filters in HVAC systems. Where HVAC systems are not installed, consider other type of regular controlled ventilation of collection and storage areas.
6. In the case of documented infections, quarantine the relevant area(s) for at least two weeks or until access is safe.
The first recommendation world-wide is still to close all public gathering sites including exhibition areas for the foreseeable future, and promote social distancing. If this is not possible in your region, please consider instituting the following:
- Limit access to exhibition spaces to help visitors distance themselves. Generally, 1.5m is recommended as the distance between individuals. The museum opening hours may be limited – 4 hours instead of the usual 8 – or staggered so that there are fewer people at a given time in a particular area.
- At the entrance: Install disinfecting gel dispensers and/or ensure that visitors have access to washrooms with soap and hot water. Place signage encouraging visitors to keep hands clean and away from their faces.
- Remove audio guides and similar items that are on display for ‘touch and try’ purposes.
- Installations with activating buttons must be cleaned frequently with sanitisers.
- Restrict access to installations that cannot be thoroughly cleaned or disinfected.
Cleaning exhibition spaces
- Follow your usual instructions with respect to wet/dry cleaning but increase the cleaning frequency to at least once per day.
- For vitrines and similar surfaces, water, soap and disinfectant spray (i.e. 70% iso-propyl alcohol or ethanol) can be applied as long as they are not used on objects on display. Beware of certain materials and coatings that are susceptible to alcohol (Plexiglas, shellac varnishes etc).
- Ensure that the cleaning staff is trained. If possible, use staff that is already familiar with the collections and the appropriate cleaning procedures in the area.
- Objects on display must only be cleaned by trained conservators or trained collection professionals.
In storage and work areas (without public access)
- Limit handling of collections, if possible.
- Ensure that all staff has easy access to hand wash facilities with hot water and soap, disinfection gel, and disposable gloves.
- Ensure that only a limited number of people work in the same room (maximum 5) and maintain a safe distance from one another. Generally, 1.5m is recommended as the distance between individuals.
- Larger groups of staff may divide up and work on alternate days to maintain safe distance from one another.
- Divide your staff in teams with only the same team members working together.
- Wash and disinfect hard surfaces, handles, door knobs, light switches, coffee-machines, and the like with great frequency.
- Masks, even homemade cloth masks, can be worn primarily to remind staff not to touch their faces.
- Museums should have a quarantine area for objects. This area should have empty shelves, cabinets, boxes, where invested objects with a minimum of touching/handling can be separated from the main collection, as well as an easy marking system indicating the dates, what, why and by whom the objects have been put in quarantine.