Cleaning a museum is a daunting task. In January 2019, as the culmination of the Applied Museum Studies program at Algonquin College, I started an internship at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Fortunately for me, it was also the start of “Blitz” cleaning week. Every January, the museum closes for a full five days (Monday to Friday) so staff can thoroughly clean all the galleries from top to bottom. My major project was to help develop a maintenance plan for the display cases in the Earth Gallery. 

This might not sound like the most glamorous task, but it is a necessary one. In conservation, there are several threats to a collection. Some of these threats—or agents of deterioration—include physical forces (dropping and vibration), theft, fire, pollutants, light and ultraviolet light, and incorrect relative humidity and temperature. Dust falls under the category of pollutants; not only is it unsightly, but it can cause damage to minerals.  

The display cases in the Earth Gallery are designed to protect artifacts from these threats. They do this by creating a microclimate where temperature, light, and humidity are kept at a certain level. Filtered air is pumped in to prevent dust from gathering, but it inevitably does over time. There are also built-in security barriers. 

A woman on a ladder cleaning the top of a mineral display case using a backpack vacuum.
Conservator Carolyn Leckie cleaning the top of a display case in the mineral gallery using a jet-pack vacuum. Image: Luci Cipera © Canadian Museum of Nature 

When we open a display case, the microclimate is disturbed and the minerals are more at risk. Because of this, we can only open them once the ceiling and other high areas have been cleaned and the dust has settled. We clean the exterior of the cases before opening as well. 

Woman using a paintbrush and backpack vacuum to clean colourful minerals in a display case.
Conservation intern, Elizabeth Maly, using a paintbrush and vacuum to clean mineral specimens. Image: Carolyn Leckie © Canadian Museum of Nature 

We dust the contents of the display cases using a fine brush and a vacuum. A nylon screen covering the nozzle of the vacuum prevents specimens from getting sucked up. This, however, does not eliminate the risk of physical contact with the minerals. Even though we are very careful, a misplaced hand can easily send a small gem flying out of the case.  

Another issue is human safety. Although they are perfectly safe when enclosed, certain minerals release particulates that can cause adverse health effects if inhaled. For these minerals, we take extra precautions by wearing proper PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) with N95 masks. 

The maintenance plan I helped develop ensures that specimens and employees remain safe during “Blitz” cleaning week. It requires careful forethought and coordination, something that is required in most museum work. I enjoyed being able to contribute in this aspect, guaranteeing that the minerals are viewed by the museum-going public at their best. 

Further Reading: 

https://canadianmuseumofnature.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/spring-cleaning-in-january/

https://www.canada.ca/en/conservation-institute/services/preventive-conservation/guidelines-collections/natural-history.html