Handle Art Works

Proper Way to Handle Art Works

Documents, manuscripts, and works of art on paper, such as

prints, drawings, and watercolors, are inherently fragile

but can be easily and effectively protected from damage.

Preservation measures include:

• Proper care and handling

• Storage in protective enclosures, including matting and framing

when appropriate

• Maintaining a suitable environment by

Limiting light exposure

Controlling temperature and relative humidity

Limiting exposure to pollutants and airborne


Proper Care and Handling

Handle paper objects as little and as gently as possible.When

doing so, be sure that your hands are freshly washed.Window mats

provide maximum protection for works of art on paper because

they allow items to be viewed and transported without direct handling.

Unmatted artwork and documents are more vulnerable.

Transport them in folders and remove individual items with both


When consulting documents, place them flat and at least three

inches away from the edge of the table on a clean blotter or sheet

of paper. Be sure notepaper does not rest on them and use only

pencil when taking notes. Fragile or frequently used documents

may be placed in polyester sleeves for added protection; surrogate

copies may be substituted for the originals for display or use.

Do not undertake repairs on your own and never apply pressure-

sensitive (self-adhering) tapes to valuable documents or artwork.

Use folders to organize documents rather than attaching

paper clips, staples, or rubber bands which can deteriorate and

cause damage.


Because paper is damaged by prolonged contact with chemically

unstable materials, the choice of materials for storage and

exhibition is critical. Mats, folders, and storage boxes should be

made of cotton rag or 100% chemically purified woodpulp with an

alkali reserve equivalent to 2% calcium carbonate and buffered to a

pH of 7.5 to 10. Matboard and folders should be rigid enough to

provide adequate support. Store artwork in mats or within individual

enclosures that are larger than the items. Documents in good

condition may be stored in groups within folders; the number of

items per folder depends upon their size, thickness and condition,

and the depth of the folder. Isolate newsprint and other highly

acidic materials by storing them separately; copies on alkaline paper

may be substituted. Individual enclosures offer the best protection

for damaged and fragile items.

Store matted works or foldered items in flat files or in appropriately

sized boxes specifically designed for storing works of art or

documents. Oversized objects should be stored flat whenever possible,

not rolled or folded.They are best kept in the drawers of flat

files (map cases), made of anodized aluminum or powder-coated


If done properly with sound materials, matting and framing

provides the best protection for art on paper.A brown cut edge at

the window opening is a common sign of poor-quality mat board.

It is essential to choose a framer who uses proper materials and

techniques. Adhesives used to attach the artwork to the mat must

be chemically stable, non-staining, and readily removable.The

essentials of proper matting and framing are described in a companion

AIC brochure, Matting and Framing Works of Art and Artifacts

on Paper: A Guide to Preservation, which is available on the AIC

website and from the AIC office.

Limiting Light Exposure

Exposure to light can cause fading of media, such as watercolor

and writing inks. Such exposure can also yellow, darken, and weaken

paper. Light damage is determined by the wavelength of the

light, the length of the exposure, and the intensity of the illumination.

Damage is cumulative and irreversible. Because all light causes

damage, display works on paper for finite periods of time. Keep

The American Institute for Conservation of

Historic & Artistic Works

Caring for Your Documents and

Art on Paper

light levels low and eliminate daylight whenever possible. Block

windows with shades, blinds, or curtains.

Light sources containing ultraviolet (UV) rays are especially

harmful. UV is found in all daylight, most abundantly in sunlight,

and in many fluorescent and metal halogen lamps. Incandescent or

tungsten lights are preferred, but because they emit heat, place

these light sources a distance from the artwork. UV filters to screen

out UV radiation may be purchased for fluorescent tubes, windows,

or cases.

Controlling Temperature and Relative Humidity

Keep objects in a cool, dry environment. Maintain a temperature

below 72°F with relative humidity (RH) between 30% and

50%.Warm or moist conditions accelerate deterioration, and

encourage mold growth and insect activity. Keep temperature and

RH within a narrow constant range. Climatic fluctuations cause

papers to expand and contract.This movement, although slight, can

lead to structural weakening of paper, undermine the attachment of

media, and cause distortions such as buckling of paper.

Frames and storage enclosures provide some degree of protection

against daily fluctuations but will not protect paper from longterm

or seasonal changes. Portable dehumidifiers may help control

high levels of RH in summer.To discourage mold growth, use fans

to help circulate air. Lowering heat levels in winter will not only

reduce energy costs, but will also prevent interiors from becoming

overly dry. Humidifiers may be used in areas where extremely low

RH occurs during the winter. Do not store works of art in basements

or attics, or hang them in bathrooms or over heat sources.

Limiting Exposure to Gaseous Pollution and Airborne


Pollutants from industrial gases, auto emissions, and heating

sources are readily absorbed into paper and media and may form

compounds detrimental to their stability. Dust, soot, and soil are

difficult to remove safely from delicate, porous paper surfaces.

Sources of indoor air pollution, such as ozone from copying

machines and fumes from new construction materials, paint, new

carpets, janitorial supplies, and wooden cabinets, can also degrade

paper and media. One way to protect paper is to fully enclose each

object in housing made with appropriate materials. Frames must be

glazed and well sealed. Documents and unframed artwork are protected

by storage in folders within containers made of permanent

durable material.

When Disaster Strikes

Most natural or man-made disasters, such as floods or fire,

involve water. Even a small amount of water from a leaky roof or

pipe can do significant damage to a paper collection.When such a

disaster occurs, contact a paper conservator, regional agency, or cultural

institution for assistance. Immediate response within the first

48 hours is crucial to the successful salvage of materials and the

prevention of mold growth.The American Institute for

Conservation can assist by identifying conservators in your region.

When to Call a Conservator

Some conditions require immediate attention.Wet or moldy

materials or those with actively flaking media have high priority. If

you notice pressure-sensitive tapes and labels, brittle matboard, or

changes in condition such as tears, detached hinges, or disfiguring

stains, contact a conservator trained to address the special needs of

works of art and artifacts on paper.The AIC office provides assistance

with its Guide for Conservation Services and a brochure on

how to select a conservator.

Further Reading

Bachmann, Konstanze. 1992. Conservation Concerns: A Guide for

Collectors and Curators.Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution


Ellis, Margaret H. 1995. The Care of Prints and Drawings.Walnut

Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press.

Long, Richard. 2000. Caring for Family Treasures. New York: Harry

N. Abrams.

The following provide more specialized information:

ANSI/NISO Standard Z39.77-2001. Guidelines for Information about

Preservation Products.

Clapp, Anne F. 1987. Curatorial Care of Works of Art on Paper. New

York: Nick Lyons Books.

Ogden, Sherelyn, ed. 1999. Preservation of Library and Archival

Materials. 3d ed.Andover, Mass.: Northeast Document Conservation


Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn. 1993. Preserving Archives and Manuscripts.

Chicago: Society of American Archivists.

Prepared by Mary Todd Glaser with assistance from Nancy

Schrock, Elizabeth Kaiser Schulte, and

Hilary A. Kaplan


For more information, contact:

American Institute for Conservation of

Historic & Artistic Works (AIC)

1717 K Street,NW, Suite 200

Washington, DC 20006

Telephone: (202) 452-9545

Facsimile: (202) 452-9328

E-mail: info@aic-faic.org

Website: http://aic.stanford.edu

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic

Works (AIC) is the national membership organization of conservation

professionals dedicated to preserving the art and historic artifacts

of our cultural heritage for future generations. Among other

services of AIC is the Guide to Conservation Services, which provides

a free list of conservators in your geographic region.The AIC

brochure, Guidelines for Selecting a Conservator, will help you make

an informed choice.

The recommendations in this brochure are

intended as guidance only, and AIC does not assume responsibility

or liability.