The white glove fallacy

September 28 2012

Image of The white glove fallacy

Picture: Keystone

I got a ranting letter yesterday from a viewer of 'Fake or Fortune?', berating me for not wearing white gloves when handling Turner's sketchbooks at the Tate Gallery. It's interesting how white gloves have taken hold in the public and media's imagination as an essential item of clothing when handling anything old. We can see them above in the photo of the unveiling of the Isleworth[less] Mona Lisa. The picture is in a glass encased white box and not even being handled. But still white gloves are demanded for the photo, just for pulling back a curtain.

White gloves are in fact more or less useless, and if anything more likely to cause damage, especially with old documents and works on paper. If, for example, you went to see Turner's sketchbooks at the Tate the staff there would not offer you white gloves, but ask that you wash your hands first, and then handle the material with great care. White gloves make tears and damage more likely, because you cannot handle the paper properly. Gloves make you clumsy. The real danger from handling works on paper comes from the grease on your fingers - that's why there is a sink by the door in the Tate prints and drawing room. Anxious viewers can rest assured that when I was being filmed showing Fiona Bruce the Turner material, I was doing so in front of two Tate curators, who had advised me of the best way to handle the works. 

At the National Archives staff and readers do not wear white gloves when handling material, except when on TV. They are so weary of people writing in complaining if white gloves are not used, that they make an exception when the cameras are rolling.

Update - a reader writes:

Totally agree with you about white gloves. The other point is that, when you're offered them in a print room, they are invariably several sizes too small for your hands, making delicate handling that bit more tricky, and also very often darkened with dirt.

Update II - a curator writes:

Definitely agree about cotton gloves for handling paper, but might be worth pointing out that they do prevent damage and should be worn for some items.  At both the Geffrye and Parliament we wore powder-free latex disposable ones (cotton gloves once you’ve worn them for a little while become sweat/grease permeable anyway, which is what your trying to prevent, and soon become dirty and can actually transfer dirt onto paper items) and probably would have worn them for handling paper collections – they’re smooth and tighter fitting than cotton so you don’t get loss off sensation.  It partly depends how long you’re going to be handling things for, condition and temperature of room. 

Good curatorial practice would recommend wearing gloves for some historic objects:

  • polished metal
  • gilded frames
  • coins
  • ceramics with gilding/overglaze decoration/lustre glazes or those with porous surfaces
  • marble 
  • early plastics bandalasta/Bakelite (grease can damage all of the above and even with clean hands, it would only take minutes for the natural grease in your skin to return to your fingertips)
  • delicate textiles (your fingernails/rough skin can snag on loose threads)
  • anything which might harm you (rather than the other way around) – lead objects/vintage electrical items/early plastics (contained formaldehyde)

There’s probably more, but it’s a basic principal of assessing what best protects the object – if you handle glass objects in cotton gloves they’re going to be more at risk than without and glass doesn’t have a porous surface and can be relatively easily cleaned of fingermarks.

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