Museum Life: To wear or not to wear…gloves

This is a post on a bit of a mundane subject, but it’s a conversation that comes up from time to time, especially when orienting new students or volunteers to our collections and collection management practices. They often tell me about different procedures at other institutions where they’ve worked, which may or may not include the use of gloves in routine, day-to-day handling of items.

It’s not unusual when we display a photo on the website of someone handling a costume without gloves to receive comments expressing surprise or shock at seeing historical garments being handled in this manner.  The important thing to get across to the public and those working in the collections is that the use of gloves in handling costume is not a one-size-fits-all practice with hard and fast rules.  It really depends upon what task is being performed, and what type of garment or textile is being handled.

No gloves: conservator Cara Varnell performs delicate conservation work on the burgundy ball gown from Gone With the Wind. Photo by Pete Smith

No gloves: conservator Cara Varnell performs delicate conservation work on the burgundy ball gown from Gone With the Wind.
Photo by Pete Smith

No Gloves

Pros: When handling a brittle or otherwise fragile fiber, you often can’t gauge its fragility through the barrier of gloves.  Thoroughly washed and dried hands can be ideal for closing up small hooks and eyes or snaps, or for handling a slippery fabric that could slide through gloved fingers. Glove-free hands can also be useful when doing delicate conservation work, where feeling the amount of tension between the mechanical action and the fabric is of great importance to the garment’s safety and the precision of the work.

Cons: With bare hands, you really have to self-monitor and be cognizant of when you’re touching your hair or face, which may result in a buildup of oils.  Constant hand washing can be inconvenient if work must be constantly interrupted, or can be undesirable, even if for reasons of pure vanity–I can vouch that skin can look quite different after years of constant hand washing with industrial soap often found in institutional bathrooms!

Cotton gloves

Pros: Cotton gloves are washable, reusable, provide protection for the garment from oils or residue on the skin, and also provide some teeth with certain  surfaces for sure handling. And it’s very easy to tell when they’re dirty and should be placed aside for cleaning.

Cons: Cotton gloves can sometimes be ineffectual when handling some types of fabrics or objects with slippery surfaces, and, as mentioned above, you may not be able to gauge the fragility of a fabric due to the increased barrier between the sensory perception of the fingers and the object. They also do not provide protection against chemical or biological agents.

Nitrile gloves

Pros: Similar to their use in the medical context, nitrile gloves protects both you and the “patient”–the garment.  As ICOM clearly states in their guidelines, “Gloves protect cataloguers as well as objects.” Not only do nitrile gloves keep natural oils of the skin off the textile (like cotton gloves also do), but they also provide protection from chemical or biological residue on an object, such as hand-painted surfaces that may contain lead, mercury prevalent in 19th century hat production, migrating plasticizer, mold and mildew, or sweat and blood (or fake blood with unknown proprietary ingredients) on well-worn performance costumes.  Check the specs on nitrile gloves, as they can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, and be sure to order gloves with a powder-free surface.  Nitrile gloves are especially good for collection inspections of new, unknown material.  Snug-fitting nitrile gloves are also good for doing up small snaps or hooks and eyes.

Cons: They are not reusable or washable, so can seem like a phenomenal amount of waste.  I also found an article discussing wax and polymer coatings on nitrile that can retain chemicals used to make the surface “powder-free”, that could in turn transfer to the surface of an object. If anyone knows of any research regarding this, please comment below.

This “Conserve-o-Gram” from the National Park Service, though not specifically geared towards textiles, gives a good overview of glove use when handling collections.


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