Museum Tutorials: Handling Objects

Handling Objects

When you touch, lift, or hold an object you are handling it. When you work in a museum you will have to handle objects for a variety of tasks. To do this safely and effectively, it is important to learn and practice good handling techniques.

Proper handling is a combination of common sense and learned specialized techniques. It is critical when dealing with any collection to understand the material in terms of its unique handling needs. Many collections are vulnerable to damage when being moved.

Steps for Handling Museum Objects

Some simple steps can be taken to avoid mishaps. When considering moving an object follow the following steps:

First, prepare yourself.

1. Remove any dangling, sharp, or heavy jewelry (bracelets, rings, or long necklaces), watches, or belt buckles that could scratch or catch on an object.
2. Wash your hands.
3. Locate the appropriate gloves in terms of type and proper fit. Ill-fitting gloves are often the cause of damage. If they are too loose they do not offer good contact with the object.

See NPS Conserve-o-Gram 1/12: How to Select Gloves, An Overview for Collections Staff, 2010

Second, prepare your workspace.

1. Remove all clutter and make sure the tabletop is clean.
2. Assemble tools that might be needed to manipulate or view the object, such as: a microspatula, a book cradle, or supportive sandbags.
3. Make sure all materials that will come in contact with the object are archival quality such as acid-free tissue, paper, or blotter and polyethylene foam padding.
4. Find a #2 pencil for writing notes and a note pad. Place these to the edge of the work area out of the immediate vicinity of the object.
5. Create a clear path from the storage area to the workstation.
A workspace is prepared for viewing museum objects by clearing a table and placing ethafoam on the surface

Retrieve the object.

1. All objects should be moved from room to room on a secondary support such a cart. The cart must be in good condition and clean.
2. Examine the object before you move it. Look for previous repairs and damaged areas that you need to be aware of.
3. At all times think of your safety as well as the object. If the object is heavy, do not lift it on your own. Wait until you can get someone to assist you. If you have to use a ladder to reach a shelf, this will also require two people.
Moving museum objects on a cart
4. For small objects handle them one at a time using two hands.
5. Find the most solid area of an object for the initial grip; never pick up an object by its handles or projecting decorative feature.
6. When moving furniture, pick up the object from its base. For example, when moving a chair, do not pick it up by its arms. Do not push or pull furniture across the floor.
Close up of hands holding a ceramic vase
7. If the object is composed of several parts, move each part separately.
8. To lift an unmounted print or drawing from a drawer, pick up the paper from opposite corners and place it on a rigid support. If the paper is too fragile to lift, the rigid support can gently and carefully be slid underneath the object. If the fragile paper is oversized, use two people to slide the rigid support under the object.
9. When carrying a textile on a hanger, distribute the weight evenly holding the hanger in one hand while supporting the fabric with your other arm.
10. When lifting a folded textile from a box or drawer, use a rigid support under it or a muslin sling.
11. To properly remove a book from open shelving, gently push the adjacent books back slightly and clasp the desired book near the center of the spine by grasping the boards not the spine, and lifting the book up off the shelf instead of sliding it. Do not tip the book towards you from the top (head) of the spine.

Potentially Contaminated Items

Some objects, such as older mounted mammal or bird specimens, pose serious health risks because they may have been treated with pesticides like arsenic in the past. Textiles may also have been treated with fire retardants and pesticides. These, along with collections that could potentially be contaminated with hantavirus, should be handled only when absolutely necessary. Owls in the Yellowstone collection

For more information on managing potentially contaminated collections review NPS Conserve O Grams: 2/3, 2/4, 2/5, 2/8, 2/10, and 2/19.

Nitrate Negatives

We often find old nitrate negatives in museum collections that are in very poor condition. These negatives also are very flammable, and should be removed from collection areas and stored in a freezer until they can be duplicated. Film in canisters being stored in a freezer in the Yellowstone collection

If you find nitrate negatives in your collection, follow the instructions in NPS Conserve O Gram 2/20 and NPS Conserve O Gram 02/22.


One of the biggest threats to our collections is dissociation – literally separating information from the object. If you come across an object in your collection without a catalog number, it is likely to be very difficult to figure out what that object is and where it came from. A collection without documentation has limited value.

Redundancy is a useful tool to keep identification numbers associated with objects. Archival string tags, labels on storage containers, shelf lists and inventories are useful cross-checks to the number on an object.

Museum Tutorials

Museum tutorials are provided through the Collection Connection, a group of NPS experts offering advice on how they successfully manage their park collections. Join the Collection Connection Group in the Commons to find experts, ask questions, get advice, and read success stories.

Write a Review

Arrow pointing upwards. Click this icon to go back to the top of the page.