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Deterioration and Handling


Because of their complex nature many ethnographic objects are extremely susceptible to damage from the usual agents of decay (relative humidity, light, temperature, pollutants, dust, insects and poor handling).

As materials such as wood, leather, furs, paper and animal sinew react at different rates to changes in relative humidity, stresses will develop in composite objects if they are exposed to rapid changes in these conditions. Painted or pigmented surfaces for example, may become detached or powdery due to changes in either relative humidity or extremes of temperature.

Potential damage to the patina of metals, to low-fired clays, problems of salt incorporation in objects recovered from buried or wet sites and the effects of high temperatures on resins and waxes all complicate the already difficult situation of caring for these material types.

Objects that are moved from one climatic zone to another need special attention. Cellulose-based materials moved from the tropics to more temperate regions for example, should be slowly acclimatised to their new environment if drying stresses are to be avoided. Suitable storage and display environments, handling and acclimatisation of sensitive materials are described elsewhere (see the chapter Handling, Packing and Storage).

Documentation and Handling

Always wear cotton or rubber gloves when handling ethnographic objects. As many ethnographic objects have been treated with toxic chemicals, this will protect both the artefact and the handler.

Thoroughly examine the object and make notes on its condition, history (if known), the materials from which it is composed and the presence of any previous repairs or alterations. Record all components even if positive identification of the material type is not possible (for example, a specific resin type). Photographs and sketches are extremely important components of the overall documentation.

As these objects are often susceptible to insect infestation and fungal attack it is wise to have an inspection area away from any other objects that may be affected by cross-contamination.

Note that as some materials may be poisonous by intent, arrow tips or material in gourds for example, take great care during the examination process.

Good handling, storage and display practices are essential if ethnographic objects are to be appropriately cared for. Choose conditions and practices that are best for the most sensitive component of a composite object. As the range of ethnographic materials is too diverse to cover in this book, the following section on bark paintings has been included to illustrate a general approach to the care of ethnographic material