At the end of this chapter you should:
understand how to facilitate access to your collections, while ensuring the safety of the objects;
be able to assess the risks to your collection caused by public access;
be familiar with a variety of display techniques which can help minimise the risks caused by public access;
be able to explain to the public the need for care when in your museum, gallery or library;
be able to devise strategies to protect items in your collections while they are being used by researchers and readers;
understand the risks involved in lending works, and the need to agree on the lender’s and borrower’s responsibilities; and
devise simple security systems to minimise the risk of theft and vandalism.
Museums, galleries and libraries exist to collect and care for objects which are deemed important because of their natural, cultural, historic and aesthetic significance; preserve material heritage for future generations; and provide the general public and individuals with access to those collections.
Providing access to your collections presents you with exciting opportunities for exhibition design, historical and cultural research, educational programs, publications and many other activities. It also provides your visitors with a valuable resource for recreation, exploration and the pursuit of their interests.
Unfortunately, access to collections can also lead to deterioration. However, the dangers posed by allowing public access to the collections can be minimised by a mixture of display, educational and procedural techniques.
Regional museums, galleries and libraries do not always have the resources to make major changes
to their display techniques and procedures, but there are simple and inexpensive display techniques that can help to lessen risks to collections. It is also possible to raise public awareness of their role in the preservation of collections: by being careful when visiting the museum, gallery or library; by cooperating with the measures you have taken to protect the collection; and by not handling the objects in the displays unnecessarily.
This section makes some suggestions on how to minimise handling problems in general, and outlines preventive action you can take against theft, vandalism and accidental damage. It also provides guidelines for the safe use of collections by researchers, donors, staff and other museums.
Risks involved in handling objects
Many people believe that a museum experience should involve a number of senses, not just sight. Many visitors have an instinctive desire to touch objects as well as look at them, so they can feel their texture, density and weight. Indeed, some exhibitions encourage the hands-on experience. But handling objects over long periods does present some risks.
Most items sustain some damage from handling. Some are more vulnerable than others, for example:
- objects with powdery painted surfaces, such as Aboriginal bark paintings and decorated sculptures;
- breakable objects such as glass or ceramic items;
- fragile items such as paper and textiles; and
- items which are already damaged.
Even the cleanest hands have natural oils, salts and acids which can attack the surface of many materials, particularly metals.
Unintentional damage can be caused by the inexperienced handling of fragile or vulnerable objects.
If the public is allowed to handle parts of the collection on display, there is an increased risk of theft.
Unfortunately, many museum visitors are not aware of these risks and can see no harm in handling
an everyday object—after all, it had been handled for many years before coming to the museum.
The following suggestions for preventive action will help you to balance providing access to your collection with taking practical steps to protect it from damage.
Get your message across by talking to your visitors
Most damage to collections on display is unintentional and occurs because the public are unaware of the dangers that inappropriate handling poses. Education and public relations are powerful tools for making the public aware of the damage that can result from inappropriate handling.
Most museums, galleries and libraries have attendants, custodians or volunteers who open up the museum, greet visitors, take admission fees and provide information. These people are also in the perfect position to provide information about care of the collections.
To be effective, this information must give the reasons for your rules in a positive manner which does not belittle or alienate the visitor. This is particularly important with school groups, who are often judged to be guilty before they enter the museum.
Your attendants could weave the following message into their greeting or introduction to the museum, gallery or library:
We ask you not to touch the objects on display because, even if you have just washed your hands, you naturally have oils, acids and salts in your skin which will attack the surface of the objects you touch. Please help us take care of our collections!
It is also important to point out that museums intend their collections to last for many generations.
Get your message across using signs and display labels
When it is not possible to greet all visitors, signage becomes very important in raising visitor awareness of the problems involved in touching objects. The signs should be positive rather than negative, and educative rather than threatening. ‘Keep off the grass!’ types of signs tend to be counterproductive.
PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH
Even if you have just washed your hands you naturally have oils, acids and salts in your skin that will damage the surface of the objects or artefacts that you touch.
An increasing number of visitors to museums in Australia do not speak English or are from a non- English speaking background. It is important to consider translating your signs so that all visitors are aware of your concern to preserve your collection. You can discover, through surveys or through local tourism associations, which countries your tourist visitors come from, and then develop bilingual or multilingual signage explaining how their behaviour can assist you in caring for your collections. Similarly, if your region or community has significant numbers of non-English speaking residents, translations can provide them with the same information as that provided for all your other visitors. This can lead to a greater sense of ownership and involvement.
Translations of your signs are important, because to date no accepted international symbol has been developed for indicating a prohibition on touching objects in museums, galleries and libraries. There are commercial translating services in most metropolitan areas or, if you are affiliated with the government, you may be eligible to use the Commonwealth Department of Immigration’s translating and interpreting service. Check your telephone directory for contact numbers for the appropriate service near you. Be aware that even the Commonwealth’s service charges for translations.
Let people know what can be touched safely and what cannot
If you want to include a hands-on display in your museum, gallery or library, it is important to distinguish clearly—through signage and display techniques—which items can be touched and which cannot.
Items which can be touched could be marked with appropriate signage, perhaps featuring hands or ‘touch me’ symbols. These objects should be easily accessible to touching, in clear contrast to the rest of the display.
Use your display furniture to protect vulnerable items
Even with the best educational and public relations strategies, it is still essential to develop displays which discourage the over-curious from touching objects, and which provide some protection against malicious or criminal damage. There are different ways of achieving this. Most involve keeping the collections at arm’s length.
Display cases and cabinets are an ideal way of showing valuable or vulnerable objects. Not only are the objects protected from inappropriate handling and casual theft, but they are also protected from environmental hazards, especially dust.
Unfortunately display cases are usually expensive; and regional and community museums have often been dependent on hand-me-down cases from major museums and government offices. These are better than nothing, but if they are not all of one design, your exhibitions can lack a sense of unity.
Funding for major items, such as sets of display cases, can sometimes be provided through local service clubs or through government grants.
One advantage of sponsorship is that the finished product can look very attractive and a sponsor may be proud to have his or her name associated with the product. Remember also that you may have the expertise within your local or regional community to make display cases to suit your needs. It is not always necessary to buy display furniture from the major cities.
Contact your State or Territory regional museum programs for advice about various sources of funding, as well as for help writing applications for funding. They may also be able to help you locate display furniture no longer required by the State museums and art galleries, furniture which you can then acquire.
Plinths and barriers are much cheaper and easier to make than display cases. They offer less protection than display cases, but they can offer protection to objects not easily displayed in cases.
Plinths, barriers and demarcation lines—often tape on the floor—come in a variety of designs; but care must be taken to ensure that they do not become a hazard, particularly if the display area is already congested. Plinths are low, raised bases which surround a display stand. They can be a particular problem for people with impaired vision or bifocals, who may misjudge where the plinth is or be unaware of it and trip and fall into the display. This could cause injury to someone and result in a public liability claim, as well as damage to the collection. Consideration of traffic flow and the placement of items away from narrow or high traffic areas, is important when planning displays.
If you use plinths in your exhibition, be aware of the items you display near the plinth. If you hang small items or display labels which require close scrutiny near or behind the plinths, people will be tempted to move too close. This will make it more likely that the plinth will be knocked, damaging the object being displayed.
Use display design and layout to protect collections
Ramps and walkways are an effective way of allowing access to large but fragile or dangerous machines or to sites which can easily be disturbed. Ramps and walkways may seem ambitious, but are not necessarily expensive and can be constructed by local contractors.
The placement of objects in exhibitions can also be used to protect them. Large objects which do not require close scrutiny can be placed out of reach of the public. This may mean that the objects are hung high on the wall, or are placed behind smaller items that do not obscure them but block access to them.
Ensure that these objects and their labels can be read properly and that the objects are not forgotten when it comes to cleaning and conservation.
Use security equipment to warn you that items are at risk
Electronic security beams are a relatively cheap method of providing some security against people touching objects. These, usually infrared, are available commercially, and sound an alarm when someone moves too close to the object and breaks the beam.
Care must be taken to ensure that the beam is not too easily broken, because numerous false alarms cause frustration and embarrassment, and can lead to a real threat being ignored.
Encouraging public access to collections inevitably involves some risk of theft to some parts of those collections. Thefts are generally of two types: the planned break-in, in which works are stolen and generally sold; and the impulse theft by a visitor.
While the likelihood of a planned break-in can be reduced through properly securing the building, the chance of an impulse theft by a visitor can be minimised by carefully considered display techniques and visitor procedures.
No objects should be displayed unsecured.
If it is not possible to have objects in lockable display cases, then they should be secured to the display with clamps or armatures. Care must be taken to ensure that such devices do not damage the object itself. Perspex clamps and armatures are effective because they are relatively soft and non- reactive, and do not intrude aesthetically.
It is common museum practice to ask visitors to cloak all bags bigger than a normal handbag, and all heavy coats or bulky objects. This is partly for the visitor’s convenience, but also minimises the risk of accidental damage or theft.
Framed works are harder to steal if the frames are screwed to the walls rather than hung on nails or brackets. Mirror plates can be screwed to the backs of frames with the extended part of the plate screwed to the wall and painted the same colour as the wall.
Vandalism is an ever-present threat to the preservation of collections. Whatever the motivation, the damage to the collection is the same.
Assess the risks. It is important to assess the probability of vandalism. You do not want to turn your museum, gallery or library into a fort needlessly, nor do you want to be caught unawares.
If you are mounting an exhibition which is potentially controversial, you can expect a reaction. However, if you use signs and labels to explain the point of the exhibition, you may diffuse some of the problems. You should also take steps to protect objects which may be at risk. Remember that issues can become controversial suddenly, so an object that was not considered at risk when first displayed may become at risk.
In some cases, you could be displaying items which are culturally sensitive, for example, sacred objects and some indigenous art. It is important to respect these cultural differences. These objects should be removed from display and treated according to the custom of the people who produced the objects.
Damage to objects generally requires an implement. If the Vatican attendants had demanded that Lazlo Toth place his hammer in the cloakroom, he would have had difficulty smashing Michelangelo’s Pieta.
Outdoor exhibits, sculpture and graves are very much at risk from graffiti or malicious damage which is at times politically motivated. Such vandalism is very difficult to combat, though strategic placement of lighting can reduce the risk of vandalism.
If riotous behaviour is known to occur in the local community, again, assessment of when potential trouble may occur should be made and procedures adopted to counteract this danger.
Secure the building. If there is a possibility that rioting may occur in the local community, the museum should be made secure not just against burglary but against mass break-in. This may require bars or arc mesh over all windows and doors. Although not aesthetically pleasing, such precautions may prevent the destruction of irreplaceable elements of the collection.
Unintentional damage to collections can be caused by staff or the public accidentally knocking objects. If your display areas are too cramped or poorly or confusingly lit, or if there is no facility to cloak bags, umbrellas and so on, then the risks of this type of damage will be greater. Backpacks are a particular problem, because the wearers are often unaware of how close they are to the displays.
Good display design and good traffic flow will minimise the chances of accidental damage. This is particularly valid if the museum attracts tourist buses.
Avoid creating narrow or congested spaces.
Ensure that people do not have to backtrack to progress through or leave the museum, gallery or library.
Do not position popular displays where they will cause congestion.
Ensure that all large bags, umbrellas, overcoats and backpacks are cloaked. Provide a secure space for cloaking.
Access for researchers
Access to collection material may be requested by researchers, donors, students, staff from other museums and members of the public.
Prevention of damage
Museum collections will deteriorate more quickly if they are handled often. Following the guidelines below can help minimise the damage that may occur through repeated access and handling.
Encourage people to search the catalogue, photographic records and published material before you allow access to collections. After a full investigation, they may find they do not need access to the original object.
Set up procedures that minimise handling of the object. Museum staff should locate requested material prior to the visitor’s appointment, and have it laid out on a cleared bench or table.
If visitors need to touch or move items as part of their research, issue them with white cotton or latex gloves, depending on the type of material to be handled. The natural oils from hands can cause deterioration of many materials, as well as transfer dirt; so if gloves are inappropriate, the visitors should wash and thoroughly dry their hands.
Visitors should be supervised by staff when handling items from the collection; and you should give them some basic instruction in handling items gently, properly supporting them and keeping movement to a minimum.
You can restrict access to very fragile material, such as very old paper or textile items. These should not be handled at all by visitors. Storage supports which allow viewing can provide access.
Photographs can be made of fragile documents or artworks, and these made available instead of the original items.
Specify that researchers make notes in pencil, not ballpoint or ink. Keep a supply of pencils for researchers to use.
Publications, new technology
Making your collections available in published form is a way of maximising access to the collection without direct handling. Increasingly, major institutions are also looking at electronic media such as CD-ROM to provide wider access to material from their collections.
Publications in printed form or in CD-ROM need not be considered difficult or beyond your budget. You may be able to get grant funding for this type of project.
Access to collections may be sought by other institutions in the form of loans. Collection items are at risk each time they are moved, handled, transported, subjected to changes of temperature and humidity, or exposed to light for long periods. Before agreeing to a loan, the following criteria should be considered.
Is the item strong enough in structure or composition to withstand travel?
Would the size and weight of the item create packing and transport problems?
Can the borrowing institution provide appropriate climatic and lighting conditions and an adequate level of security?
Will the item need conservation before it can travel, and can the borrower pay for this?
Before agreeing to the loan, you should also:
have the item valued for insurance purposes; and
find out as much as possible about the borrower’s storage and display conditions, so that methods of minimising deterioration through changes in temperature, humidity and light can be devised.
A museum, gallery or library may decide that very rare or fragile material should not be made available for loan. If it is agreed that collection material may be lent, the following guidelines apply.
You should prepare a condition report, including photographs if possible, of the items to be lent. Any wear marks or damage should be recorded as accurately as possible. It is important to have a detailed record of the item before it is lent, so that on the item’s return it can be checked against this report to find out if travel or display has caused any additional damage or deterioration.
For more information
For more information on condition reports, please see the Collection Surveys and Condition Reporting chapter in Managing Collections and the Transportation chapter in Handling, transportation, storage and display.
A loan agreement setting out the conditions of the loan and specifying the borrower’s responsibilities, including insurance cover, should be signed by both parties.
Items for loan should be packed securely, so that they are fully supported and protected during transit.
Records of loans should be kept so that you know how often particular items have been lent. This
may affect decisions on future loan requests, because repeated exposure to transit and different display conditions will adversely affect an item’s condition.
If you have a problem relating to the access of collections, contact a conservator. Conservators can offer advice and practical solutions.
If you do not want people to touch objects in your museum you should:
a) arrange your display in such a way that it discourages handling of objects;
b) put everything high on the walls, out of reach;
c) use signage to explain why you don’t want them to touch things;
d) put everything behind security mesh.
In order to protect your collection, it is advisable to:
a) deny access to backpackers;
b) provide a secure store for items such as backpacks, bags, coats and umbrellas;
c) stop tour buses coming to your museum, gallery or library;
d) design your exhibition with good traffic flow, also avoiding congestion.
Which of the following statements are false?
a) All researchers must have unlimited access to the collections when they require it.
b) If researchers examine all the supporting material first, they may not need extended access to original material.
c) Publications and CD-ROM productions are a means of providing access to your collections.
d) It is not polite to give people instructions on how to handle the items that they are consulting for research.
Which of the following statements are true?
a) Before you agree to a loan, you should check on the display conditions at the borrowing institution.
b) Items for loan should be packed securely.
c) Objects are placed at risk each time they are moved, handled, transported, exposed to light for long periods of time or subjected to fluctuations in relative humidity.
d) Records of loans should be kept so that you can monitor the number of times each item is lent.
e) All of the above.
Answers to self-evaluation quiz
Answer: a) and c) are two of the methods you can use to discourage people from touching items. b) and d) will not provide good access to the collection—measures will not allow people to see things easily and will not provide a visitor-friendly environment.
Answer: b) and d).
Answer: a) and d) are false. It is important to provide access to your collections; but if items are particularly fragile or if they are undergoing conservation treatment it is reasonable for you to restrict access. Access to some culturally sensitive material should always be restricted. People will generally appreciate that you are concerned with the care of your collections. If you give them handling instructions in a positive, polite and constructive way, they should not take offence.