I Want to Touch!
While I know that casual fingerprints left on a polished steel surface such as a Japanese samurai sword can inflict serious permanent harm to the object, I cannot help but suspect that the white glove treatment for excavated iron objects and many objects with natural patinated surfaces must be somewhat of an overkill and I have found that policies vary greatly between curators and institutions in Europe.
Also, before proceeding with this diatribe, I should also confess here that I suspect that in aggregate, dealers improving their wares and collectors enhancing their treasures have inflicted far more harm to these objects than have the entire contingent of museum staff including metallurgical scientists who have cut sections.
A generation ago, a minority of the same curators who would declare the slight natural salinity and acidity on our fingers a potent threat to the survival of an already rusted artifact took to dipping their charges in phosphoric acid to remove all traces of corrosion. I doubt any curator would advocate such treatment now. This left a dead, dull gray microspongiform surface devoid of all patination. Much of the beauty and age was eaten away along with those trace substances that might have been the strongest justification for having not handled the object with bare hands in the first place in order to preserve what future analysis might have told us about the history of the object. Today's curators who have inherited such objects are left with the further dilemma of whether to exhibit the now embarrassing objects or to lock them away in the basement, or to remove yet more of the surface with fine abrasives in an effort to rehabilitate the object and allow repatination. In any event, one may argue that some of these artifacts might have fared better lying out on a table in the gallery for visitors to handle, though, admittedly, none of these institutions are so well endowed as to be able to dedicate the necessary guards to such a purpose.
And, with a sigh, I must admit that while a single touch may well do immeasurably small harm, in aggregate a million such touches may do measurable harm and that the museums do hope to preserve these things forever.
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1 September 1997 v1.21 ~ Copyright © 1997 by Lee A. Jones