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#AskAConservator: too fragile to touch?

For #AskAConservator day, Sara asks:

Have you ever had to work on something so fragile you were afraid to even touch it? What did you do and how did you do it?

Great question! Fiona Graham says:

There are many materials that are inherently so fragile that they cannot be touched without damaging the surface or causing them to disintegrate. Examples include objects with powdery paint surfaces (either deliberate as with certain Anish Kapoor sculptures or as a result of degradation as with some historic painted wooden objects), objects made of weighted silk that has become so brittle as to shatter, and feathers where handling almost inevitably leads to damaging their fine interlocking structure.

In everyday situations, picking up these objects by their base, mount, or box reduces the risk of damage.

When treating such objects, the solutions for avoiding further damage vary. When dealing with the aftermath of a museum fire, my colleague created a special wand with a rotating sleeve that allowed us to vacuum off the majority of soot from taxidermied birds without disrupting (too much) the complex interlocking structure of the feathers. It also prevented (mostly) the soot on the surface from being pushed down into the web of feathers where it would be impossible to remove. Conservators are really good at creative problem solving!