Plan Your Work, Part 1

 Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan:
Housekeepng in a Historic House

Susan Haake

Curator, Lincoln Home National Historic Site
Springfield, Illinois

Part 1

“Housekeeping ain’t no joke.” –Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, 1868

Many of us who come to work every morning at a historic house museum can agree with the character Hannah in Little Women: housekeeping is not easy. There are so many things to consider. The building contains what are often priceless and irreplaceable objects and is itself a complicated and demanding artifact. Artifacts can be made from wood, metal, fabric, or bone (sometimes all are found in one artifact), and each material has different requirements for long-term preservation, including its general housekeeping procedures. Why worry about housekeeping? There are several reasons to consider, besides aesthetics.

First, every museum has the basic obligation to preserve the specimens in its collection. Taking care of something will make it last longer. This makes careful housekeeping a necessity. Another name for this process is preventive conservation. It should be the overarching principle of housekeeping in a museum.

Dust is defined as fine dry particles of earth or pulverized matter that may include minute particles of sand, dirt, and insects. All of these can be abrasive and can scratch wood surfaces, glass, and glazed ceramics quickly. If left in place over a long period of time, dust can even degrade hard, nonporous surfaces like cast iron. In a humid environment (like summer in Illinois), dust can react with the acids in the atmosphere to further degrade artifacts. All of this damage is preventable through good housekeeping, which may also help to avoid expensive and time-consuming conservation work later.

But how do you maintain good collections care, especially if your house museum has perhaps only a professional staff of one–or even none, with an all-volunteer group? Good collections care also means documenting any work attempted on an artifact. How do you keep track of what has been done? A housekeeping plan may provide an important starting point. It provides a central location in which to record any preventive conservation work, which is a requirement for responsible collections care, and maintains a record of tasks performed to ensure that none are overlooked. If the task of creating a plan seems daunting, check to see that you have a few “lines of defense” in place first.

Defense Line 1: For any part of the plan to work, the house has to be an impervious envelope for holding the rest of the artifacts. This means having a nonleaking roof and doors and windows that seal. You are familiar with the many problems caused by a leaking roof so that needs to be the first priority. Keep doors and windows closed as much as possible and have weather stripping on all openings. Inspect weather stripping annually and replace as necessary. You can check for leaking air around doors and windows by waiting for a breezy day or, if the house is so equipped, turning on a whole house fan. Dampen your hand with a rag and hold your hand up to the sides of the closed window or door. Your hand will feel cool in spots where air is infiltrating. Check that the foundation is solid and the siding and downspouts are in good condition. Keep landscaping plants several inches away from the foundation to prevent damage to the foundation caused by the plants themselves or the bugs and rodents that like to eat them. This also eliminates a microclimate that traps moisture in the foundation materials, causing deterioration.

Defense Line #2: Don’t bring in dirt unnecessarily. Those of you who work at sites where the homeowners didn’t have plumbing may have mentioned to visitors that every drop of water that came in had to be taken out somehow. The same is true with dirt, so if it doesn’t come in, it won’t have to be taken out. Use floor mats at the exterior doors. Mats are available in a variety of materials to provide a historically appropriate look and to remove the dirt. Sweep the mats and the area under and around the mats at least once a day when the house is open to the public. The need to clean will also be reduced if you frequently vacuum carpets where visitors walk and if you keep all floors clean to avoid tracking dirt around the house.

Defense Line #3: Those who work at the site need to set a good example to visitors by checking shoes when coming indoors, and by not touching the artifacts. We all know that our fingers leave a residue on anything we touch (which is great for t.v. detectives but bad for artifacts), so remind the visitors not to touch and make sure the staff does the same.

With these defenses in place, you are ready to write a housekeeping plan. This is where it is important to plan your work and work your plan. Most of this information will probably seem a matter of common sense; you just may not have had a chance to think about all of it at one time.

Writing a Housekeeping Manual

The manual should have at least three sections: Introduction, Schedules, and References. Use a three-ring binder to make it easy to update and replace the schedules. Update the manual at least annually.


Start by listing some basic information:

• A list of staff to contact, including work and home numbers, in an emergency.

• A list of emergency phone numbers for all utilities and services (security alarms, gas, electric, fire, police, heating and air conditioning, etc.).

• A layout for any heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in use, even if this is only a sketch of the vent locations. This information is helpful if any work is needed on the ductwork to determine if it will affect artifacts. For example, open vents may direct air onto artifacts, and bends in the ductwork can harbor pests.

• A map or floor plan with the locations marked for all shutoff valves, electrical outlets, and fire extinguishers.

• Drawings or construction plans for exhibit cases and a list of materials used to make the cases. Optional: Images of the exhibit mounts and de-installation instructions.

• A complete list of artifacts in the building, including any special concerns about an object that should be taken into account (i.e., “back left leg is cracked”) and a list of lenders, with their addresses and phone numbers.

• A list of safety and security issues (see section below).

• Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) are required for cleaners, solvents, and other such materials used in the house. MSDS list the ingredients, solubility, appearance, odor, fire and explosion data, and reactivity of these materials; they also record procedures for firefighting and handling spills, safe handling, emergency and first aid, and any other special precautions that need to be taken when dealing with the material.

• A list of general do’s and don’ts when dealing with artifacts (see section below).

The nearest fire and police departments may appreciate having copies of all of this information. Their staff members can familiarize themselves with your building and operations, which is especially helpful if the building is occupied only one or two days a week.


Safety must be a constant concern. Most people would not consider museum work hazardous, but there are many substances used by museum staff that can cause physical harm if not used carefully.

• Never touch your mouth or eyes after touching a museum object. Artifacts may be treated with arsenic, cyanide, mercury, lead, carbon tetrachloride, pesticides, formaldehyde, or asbestos. Try to avoid contact between objects and bare skin. Wear a lab coat and wash it frequently, keeping it separate from regular laundry.

• Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water frequently when working with artifacts. Keep fingernails trimmed fairly short to avoid buildup under them; this will also reduce the chance of scratching artifacts.

• If possible, do not mix general storage, office space, or lunchroom space with artifact storage. This protects the objects from potential damage and possible pest infestation, cuts down on unauthorized access to artifacts, and prevents the artifacts from contaminating food.

• Do not open an historic container with an unknown material inside. Old medicines may have deteriorated into poisonous substances, and batteries may still contain acid. Never try to work with old ammunition of any sort. Call your local hazardous materials office, fire department, or Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to safely remove the items from the premises and test the materials. Do not reuse the container to hold any materials.

• When using a container that is not the original housing for materials–for example, keeping flour in a medicine bottle–clearly mark the container with a list of the materials and when they were placed in the container.

• Keep your tetanus shot up-to-date. You need a booster shot every ten years. If you work in an old house with deteriorating painted interiors that may have lead-based paints, have your lead levels checked as well.

• Have your site inspected for fire hazards annually. It is also a good idea to have representatives of the closest fire company take an annual walk-through to familiarize them with the site. Not only does it foster good community relations, but it will help the firefighters if they know that a room in the house has floor-to-ceiling books and papers and is therefore a potential tinder box, or that a door is blocked by a solid walnut wardrobe.

Dealing with Artifacts:
Housekeeping Do’s and Don’ts

You are already familiar with standard procedures when handling artifacts, such as wearing cotton gloves and picking up an artifact only at its strongest point. For housekeeping, additional procedures should be observed.

• Remove all jewelry before cleaning. Dangling necklaces can scratch, and rings and watches can catch on textiles and snag them.

• Clean in a logical pattern. Start in one corner or the center and work away from the cleaned areas. Always work from the top down. This eliminates having to clean something twice because you’ve brushed dust onto something already cleaned.

• Support fragile or dangling parts of furnishings or objects by holding them in one hand while cleaning.

• Dust with the grain on fur and feather-covered artifacts, and along the joints in furniture.

• Don’t overclean. Allow the patina to remain. Often the condition of last use or the appearance of “old but cared for” is more appropriate.

• Leave highly deteriorated finishes alone. You could cause additional damage, and the loose material may be toxic.

• Use a vacuum hose and soft brush for irregular surfaces. Cover the end of the hose with fiberglass screening to catch any loose pieces. Brush toward the hose, holding the hose about one inch away.

• Always spray any cleaner onto the cleaning cloth and not the artifact. This gives you more control over exactly where the cleaner goes and prevents the cleaner from running down the surface and into crevices.

• Check the room when finished to make sure framed items are straight and everything is back where it belongs.


A written schedule is an absolute must. It will alert staff to needed maintenance and document the completion of each task. It needs to cover daily, weekly, monthly, annual, and special schedules (such as a schedule for rotating or substituting objects), routine checks and inspections, and an annual inventory. It needs to be organized, comprehensive, and used. Keep the manual in a convenient spot and make sure those responsible know where it is kept.

Take some time to walk through the building in a logical manner to determine what might need to be done, as well as to review what is being done already. While doing the walk-through, consider what needs to be done now and what can wait for a later time. How much use do the area and the artifacts get? Are there seasonal needs when visitation is higher that may not be of concern in the slower months? When will the area not be in use by visitors? It is important to remember that housekeeping is crucial to good collection care, but not to the point where it negatively impacts the visitor’s experience. Some cleaning tasks may be done while visitors are in the room but vacuuming is not one of them.

What should be included in the schedules? Vacuuming and sweeping the floor, as stated earlier in the “lines of defense,” must be completed as often as possible. To avoid pest infestations, daily garbage removal is also necessary. Conduct a visual inspection of each room for missing or misplaced artifacts, burned-out lights, crooked pictures, and similar conditions. This should be done several times a day, not only for security reasons, but also to make sure the exhibit is in good shape for visitors.

A list of housekeeping tasks should be specific to each room or area but should contain at a minimum the following:

• Dusting

• Spot-cleaning walls

• Cleaning glass in cases, mirrors, and framed picture glass

• Washing windows

• Washing window coverings

• Cleaning, buffing, and waxing wooden floors

• Waxing woodwork

• Cleaning light fixtures

• Cleaning storage areas

• Cleaning walkways and entryways

• Monitoring pests, light, temperature, and relative humidity. These tasks can be completed on a weekly, monthly, or annual basis. Historic areas or exhibit spaces adjacent to restrooms, kitchens, and lunchrooms should be checked more frequently. High- traffic areas also require more attention.

For quick reference, have a separate page in the manual for each set of schedules–daily, weekly, monthly, annually, and special or infrequent. Assign all tasks besides daily and weekly tasks to specific blocks of time. For example, checking the pest traps may be assigned to the third week of the month, and the annual inventory can be scheduled for completion in the first two weeks in December. To reduce the confusion of keeping track of all of the schedules, create a checkoff sheet that lists the weekly tasks, as well as the monthly or annual tasks that are scheduled for that particular week. Keep all weekly sheets in the binder. Laminate and punch holes on the right side of the list of daily tasks and keep it on the opposite side of the binder. The daily tasks could then be checked off with a dry-erase marker.

It is important to make sure that the task is marked off when completed, especially when several staff members are doing the cleaning. This will ensure that some tasks are not completed two or three times and others never. Any changes to the schedule should also be noted, along with a reason for the change. Other notations could address any problems with the cleaning methods or offer suggestions for additional tasks. Photographs can help document any damage, intentional or accidental, by staff, visitors, or acts of nature. Use this information when updating the manual to determine if the schedule needs to be changed, if a task needs to be completed more or less frequently or not at all, and if the cleaning methods are helpful or harmful. The scheduling of these tasks depends on use and need. Knowing when to clean is as important as knowing how to clean.


This section contains step-by-step instructions for each housekeeping task listed in the schedules. Following these instructions should ensure that cleaning is done in a manner that is safe for both artifact and housekeeping staff. This section also should list the supplies needed to complete the task. For example, to clean doorknobs, these instructions are provided:

Supplies: soft cloth

1. Dampen soft cloth with water only. Wring out thoroughly.

2. Wipe off doorknobs, taking care to keep moisture off of door and area surrounding doorknob. In cold weather, DO NOT clean exterior doorknobs on the front and back doors since the moisture may freeze and damage metal.

3. Allow soft cloth to dry and add it to pile of dirty cloths.

Write down exactly how you want the artifacts cleaned. Have someone else try to clean following your directions while you observe. Correct or add to the instructions as needed to make sure they are clear to all staff members or volunteers using the manual. Set limits on the amount of cleaning allowed. If it appears that the artifact will need heavy cleaning or treatment with chemicals, contact a conservator. This will help avoid inflicting permanent damage on objects. If in doubt, don’t clean. Make sure whatever you do is reversible. Use tested museum cleaners and methods; get as much information as possible before doing the work. Don’t cause problems for future curators by using sticky notes, rubber bands, staples, or tape.

Other references could include information about where to find cleaning supplies, a contact list of conservators and other professionals (pest removal, fire restoration specialists, etc.), and a bibliography.

Getting Started

Do not leave the care of cultural resources to chance. Keeping a record of tasks performed ensures consistency of care. A housekeeping manual provides a place in which to record methods that work best, problems to avoid, what to do if a problem appears, and any other suggestions or comments for future “keepers of the house.” You are holding objects in the public trust; therefore, those who operate every historic house, museum, art gallery, or similar facility have the basic obligation to preserve the artifacts in their collections. This makes careful housekeeping a necessity, not a luxury.


Thanks to Linda Norbut Suits (IHPA), Tom Pacha, John Popolis, and Tim Townsend (Lincoln Home) for their assistance with this insert. Part 2 of this insert (Insert 126, November—December 2003) will cover specific cleaning techniques for furniture, glass, textiles, and other materials.


Items preceded by an asterisk are available to borrowers from the IHA circulating library. The library also contains many of the CCI Notes, Conserv-O-Grams, AASLH Technical Leaflets, and NEDCC leaflets. Contact the IHA office for more information.

* Butcher-Younghans, Sherry. Historic House Museums: A Practical Handbook for Their Care, Preservation, and Management. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

CCI Notes. Canadian Conservation Institute, 1030 Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0C8, (613) 998-3721,

Conserv-O-Grams. National Park Service, Museum Management Program, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240, (202) 343-8142,

Fred Woods Productions. Housekeeping for Historic Sites (video). Cambridge, Mass.: National Park Service, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, 1996.

Heritage Preservation Publications,

* Lewis, Ralph H. Manual for Museums. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1976.

* MacLeish, A. Bruce. The Care of Antiques and Historical Collections. Nashville, Tenn.: AASLH Press, 1985.

* Miller, Patricia L. Arsenic, Old Lace, and Stuffed Owls May be Dangerous to Your Health: Hazards in Museum Collections. Technical Insert 50, March—April 1991. Illinois Heritage Association, Champaign, Illinois.

Sandwith, Hermione, and Sheila Stainton. The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping. London: Penguin Books, 1986.

Schultz, Arthur W., general ed. Caring for Your Collections. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.

Technical Leaflets. American Association for State and Local History, 530 Church Street, Suite 600, Nashville, TN 37219, (615) 255-2971,

Technical Leaflets. Northeast Document Conservation Center Internet Resources,