Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The gloved ones

White gloves have played many parts. Mickey Mouse was given a pair to make his hands visible when they were in front of his black body; Michael Jackson used them to keep germs at bay; Elizabeth I drew attention to her best feature – her beautifully proportioned hands – with them.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that butlers started wearing white gloves so they could check for dust and dirt by running their fingers along difficult-to-reach surfaces. The white showed up the dirt.

In art museums a rather different approach has been taken to the white glove. For the last 25 years or so they have principally been worn to protect art works from dirty hands, although anyone who works in a museum will remember times when grubby gloves were used because the last load hadn’t hit the wash. Of course it’s an on-going irony that most of the works being protected by institutions initially come from studios that would make any clean freak bust out in a rash.

The problem with wearing gloves when you are handling art works, particularly delicate ones, is that they insert an insensitive surface between the hand and the object, often adding clumsiness in the process. There’s also the fact that standard cotton gloves are extremely absorbent (both from the hand out and the world in) and you get to a reasonable argument that suggests gloves are more risky than sweat and oils from the hand are. In their influential article Misperceptions about White Gloves, Dr. Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman conclude that well-cleaned hands out-gun gloves every time. When handling delicate antique books they suggest that, “Compared with the destructive effects of air pollution, heat, light, poor storage conditions, repeated folding, and internal acidity, the chemical deterioration caused by paper's contact with bare skin is imperceptible.” It is probably true of art as well.

Images: Top, gloved ones at the Auckland Art Gallery. Bottom gloving it at the Grand Palais in Paris and, at Washington’s Smithsonian, the new glove du jour for museums and art galleries in a smart blue.
Article used as background for this post: Misperceptions about White Gloves by Dr. Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman appeared in International Preservation News. You can read the whole article here.