'Mrs. Joe was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself.'
Charles Dickens: Great Expectations
Mrs. Joe would clearly make a poor cleaning technician at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Although appearances are important, cleaning must not compromise the condition of the objects, and with over two million to look after, it's a demanding job.
Dust is a problem, much of which is brought into the building by visitors themselves. Particles include traces of human skin cells, textile fibres, pollen, building rubble and soot and iron from vehicle exhaust emissions.
Decisions on how to clean objects are made following a careful examination. Firstly the surface condition of the objects is assessed. Some objects are so fragile that they are only dusted if absolutely necessary. Objects are then assessed for their structural condition. There may be loose joints and lifting veneers on furniture, for example, or evidence of repairs and conservation on ceramics.
The least abrasive cleaning method is chosen. Over the years even light dusting with a cloth can wear away gilding on something like a picture frame. If using a brush, a vacuum cleaner nozzle is brought up close to the area being cleaned to prevent the redistribution of dust particles around the building.
These simple, common-sense guidelines keep the museum objects looking clean and cared for while ensuring their existence for future generations to enjoy.