One of the most frequent questions we get asked when sharing photos from our research trips of us handling museum objects is “why aren’t you wearing gloves?”
The question of how to handle objects, bare hands, cotton gloves, latex or nitrile gloves, has been a topic of consideration when handling objects. The mundane reality is that the answer to the question of do you wear gloves is “it depends.” What is more interesting is that the idea of cotton gloves has become a symbol of “utmost care” and a signifier of “this object is important.” But that image of handling with white cotton gloves is more a modern media trope than anything else.
The idea that a handler should wear white cotton gloves to protect a precious object is now so ubiquitous that several museum and gallery experts have written articles to discuss this perception. The Smithsonian has a particularly good post on this topic.
Basically, white cotton gloves are usually a no go, especially for textiles. They can snag on uneven surfaces (imagine handling an embroidery which has loose threads and catching one inadvertently on cotton gloves!), they definitely impair the dexterity of the person wearing them, and can hold onto sweat and dirt and transfer that to the object being handled, or even transfer dirt from one object to another.
In fact, in most instances when dealing with textiles (including embroidered book bindings), clean, frequently washed hands tend to be the preferred method for handling textiles. That being said, of course there are exceptions. For instance, it is necessary to wear gloves when handling a textile with modern sequins which are made of gelatin and can transfer handprints. Also, outside of textiles, gloves should be worn when handling metal, furniture, painted, lacquered, or gilded surfaces, plaster, geological specimens, plastics, photographic items, and unglazed ceramics. All of these objects have porous or reactive surfaces which could be damaged by oils. In these cases, wearing gloves protects the objects.
However, there are situations where it is recommended or imperative to wear gloves to protect the handler from the object (and not the object from the handler), such as taxidermy, textiles that have been dyed specific colors from specific periods of history, millinery objects (hats) from specific areas and eras, all of which were treated with (now known) toxic chemicals. The basic rule of thumb in these instances is that you should not be handling objects that you do not have knowledge of its composition, or at minimum, wearing gloves to protect yourself from unknown contaminants should be the default.
So, what types of gloves should be worn when it is necessary to use them in handling objects? In these situations, the use of nitrile gloves are standard because they close fitting and don’t impair dexterity like cotton gloves, they are powder-free and allergenic, and leave no trace. Latex gloves are not used because they have a high incidence of allergic reaction and can leave trace materials on the objects.
What’s interesting is that in our experience the glove policy changes from institution to institution. At our most recent trip to the British Library, we worked closely with the curator of bookbindings who kindly facilitated our request to study some restricted books. Bringing us into the binding and conservation laboratory, we asked about the use of gloves and she noted, quite adamantly, that cleanly washed hands were their policy. No gloves. This makes complete sense when dealing with books and paper which is quite delicate and can become easily torn with the reduced dexterity when using gloves of any type, and is the norm for rare books collections.
At the Museum of London, where our timing was lucky enough to allow us to be the last researchers before they closed access for their move to a new facility. Their policy was to use nitrile gloves when handling all objects.
And at the Huntington Library in southern California, their glove policy depended on the books we were handling. But when they did ask us to use gloves, it was nitrile gloves.
In the end, we always defer to the policy of the institution where we are doing our research. So when you see our photos, whether we are wearing gloves or have bare hands, we are following procedures. But bare, clean hands are so much easier, especially when handling books, opening the covers, and dealing with the delicate pages inside.
If you would like further reading, here are a list of links: