Anytime you see a conservator or a museum staff member handling old or delicate objects without gloves, you might cringe. We’ve been told time and again that gloves protect these artifacts from the dirt and skin oils that can damage them down the line. But, a growing number of institutions are foregoing the gloves in favor bare hands for handling some of the world’s most precious objects. And, the reasons might surprise you.
Years ago objects in museums were handled with bare hands, but starting around 20-30 years ago it became more common for people to use white, cotton gloves instead of bare hands. This was because damage from dirty hands and even just from naturally-present oils in skin was thought to damage delicate items over time. Everything from fragile bones to thin paper to silk fabric on the verge of shattering must be protected from damage by the institutions that care for them so this does make a lot of sense.
White gloves are also a visual cue that something is precious and lets others know they shouldn’t touch the artifacts. So why do away with the gloves? As it turns out, they can do their own kinds of damage.
When even the most careful and conscientious people handle rare books, photos, documents, and fabrics with gloves their fingers are not as dexterous. This deadening of the sensations in the hands can lead to clumsy fumbles and torn pages. While oil on a page may or may not lead to damage, a tattered item is of greater concern. Gloves can catch on the corners of pages or along delicate fabrics, leading to unintended damage.
In order to increase dexterity many institutions now use the protocol of handling items with freshly washed and thoroughly dried bare hands instead. It takes time for the body to make more oil once it’s been stripped from skin, so just after washing is a good time to get the most gentle handling without the oils.
For these reasons in some institutions gloves may be used for some objects and not others. It’s not uncommon for different rules to be applied to various collections, like using gloves for handling fossils but not for photographs as an example.
Other artifacts might contain poisons old wallpaper or fabric sample books that were made using arsenic or books that were treated with toxic chemicals to keep booklice and other critters from doing damage. Gloves for these objects will still be necessary.
Speaking of fossils there are times when archaeologists don’t use gloves in the field, either. But, this varies as well, based on what kinds of objects are being found and handled.
Among the institutions that no longer use gloves for the most delicate objects are the Library of Congress, the UK National Archives, and the British Museum among many others. So the next time you see someone in a history show or museum video not wearing gloves don’t worry. It’s probably safer this way and they most likely have extremely clean hands.