Organisations caring for historic & cultural assets during COVID-19

Heritage and cultural organisations have particular concerns about protecting collections and managing security during the pandemic

One of the rooms at Powis Castle being protected during coronavirus.

A room at Powis Castle. A small team of National Trust staff are working to protect items during the lockdown. (Photo: Manfred Heyde via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Annette McGill

While many offices were rapidly closed down because of COVID-19, people caring for historic buildings and museum collections are having to consider complex measures to protect fragile items during the pandemic.

Heritage organisations have closed all their facilities to the public. The National Trust has shut all of its houses, as well as gated gardens and parks, cafes and shops to help restrict the spread of the coronavirus.

But that doesn't mean locking the doors and walking away: organisations caring for historic collections have additional to take special measures to protect items during an extended closure. In Wales, for example, a small team of National Trust staff at Powys Castle are working during the lockdown to dust and protect fragile items. The Powys County Times reports that the team is dealing with more than 2,000 objects and pieces of furniture in the medieval castle’s 117 rooms and corridors. This work aims to protect items during lockdown and site closure. 

The Museums Association says every museum should have an emergency plan to secure sites and collections. The Association says this plan should be enacted with clear advice to staff around social distancing.

Time is the best disinfectant

Some organisations may need to consider how to clean items that may have been exposed to the virus.

There are still conflicting estimates about how long the virus can persist on different surfaces. Because of this, and the innate fragility of many historic items, most guidance stresses that time is the best disinfectant;  sealing off areas or objects which may have been exposed for a period of time is the least risky solution.

Historic England has published online guidance on cleaning historic items or rooms in historic buildings. The guidance advises that staff should follow the Public Health England (PHE) guidance on cleaning in non-healthcare settings. If there is concern that a person who may have the virus has touched a historic item, or that a heritage room has become contaminated, Historic England advises avoiding using household detergents or disinfectants containing chlorine (1000 ppm dilution) on any historic surface, since these could cause permanent damage.

The U.S. National Centre for Preservation and Technology Training has released a series of videos about caring for cultural resources during the pandemic, including one on cleaning cultural resources.

Some current hygiene advice can conflict with the need to protect fragile surfaces. For example, the U.S. Library of Congress has published a study on the impact of hand sanitisers on paper which found that alcohol-based sanitisers contributed to significant yellowing of uncoated paper.

Highlighting heritage security

The closure of museums, historic buildings and heritage collections poses a significant security challenge.

Canada’s government has published advice on caring for heritage collections. This guidance covers cleaning of heritage items and spaces, and also looks at ensuring the safety of collections during closure.

The International Council of Museums suggest low-cost measures that can help to improve museum security, such as improving liaison with police, limiting vehicle access to sites and involving the local community in monitoring. 

Museums Galleries Scotland has published a short security checklist (PDF) for museums and galleries.

A wide range of resources: from advocacy to professional development

The Conservation Centre for Art and Historic Artifacts in the U.S. has published an extensive set of COVID-19 resources for cultural institutions which covers everything from cleaning for paper-based resources and circulating materials, to online awareness raising. This is a comprehensive listing of online resources and although mainly from U.S. organisations, much of it may be relevant for conservators and heritage staff.