Pandemic Objects: The Nitrile Glove

May 12, 2020

The glove: Woolly to keep us warm, leathery to protect us from the elements, marigolds to do the washing up. For the most part, they function as a physical barrier, protecting us from what’s outside. In the museum, however, we wear them for the opposite reason: they protect what’s outside from us. Now, this notion of the glove as two-way protection has been given heightened meaning with the current pandemic.

Snuff box with young woman
Snuff box with young woman, Johann Christian Neuber, 1775 – 80, Dresden, Germany. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.350-2008. Image credit: Jessica Eddie

Curators are guardians of precious objects of art and design, ensuring they are looked after and passed on to the next generation to inspire and encourage creativity. Many of our objects are hundreds of years old, made from precious and delicate materials. Humans can do more harm to them than anything else. Once a finger – oily and acidic – touches a metal object, it can sear in that fingerprint forever a guilty barcode never to be erased. For this reason, we create a barrier, hence the nitrile glove.

The glove is not an object which springs to mind when you think of the museum, but within my working day I can easily get through a few pairs. Selecting my third pair for the day, I curse the moment I grab a size ‘small’ and have to sausage my fingers into the dark purple skin. I take little notice of the medical grade St John’s Ambulance motif on the side of each tissue-shaped box, a motif which has now become very important to note. Through the heightening of demand for ‘personal protective equipment’ (PPE), museums across the country were very quick to respond with donations of their own PPE. The V&A mobilised security teams who stayed on location to gather our stock, amassing hundreds of boxes of nitrile gloves. Our conservation teams and curatorial departments dug out their stores and gave as many as could be found. These gloves once destined for handling V&A objects, now were in the midst of a role reversal. They were winging their way to the London Air Ambulance team, to be worn to protect the medical team against the virus, and ultimately protect us all.

The conservator’s use

Katrina Redman, Metals Conservator

Within the conservation profession it is common to see conservators wearing gloves; and for any work involving metal, this is particularly important. The gloves that most conservators choose are nitrile or polyethylene gloves as these offer a good level of dexterity while remaining protective. During the recent pandemic these gloves have become instantly recognisable both for use by health care workers and the public.

Fingerprint etched into the surface of a napkin ring
Fingerprint etched into the surface of a napkin ring. Image credit: Katrina Redman

Within the museum context, gloves protect both the conservator from the objects and vice versa. With metal objects the natural oils and salts within fingerprints create active corrosion sites that ultimately etch into the surface of the object and can be very difficult to remove. They can also chemically alter delicate patinas locally, creating a permanent reminder of an errant handling session in the form of darkened fingerprints.

Gloves also protect the conservator from the objects and the treatments which are undertaken on the object. Some objects contain harmful materials such as asbestos, radioactive material, mercury, pesticides and poisons.

Conservators also need to think about cross contamination from the gloves. When handling an object made from lead or pewter (a lead alloy) the conservator must ensure they remove their gloves after handling the object. Lead and its corrosion products are toxic and by touching other objects and items around the conservation studio there is a risk of cross-contamination. This is comparable to health care professionals who change their gloves frequently when dealing with different patients.

During the recent pandemic there has been an increase in the number of members of the public wearing gloves. But gloves can have the disadvantage of making people feel more protected than they actually are. As with conservators, members of the public touch various surfaces which may be contaminated and so it is vitally important to remember not to touch your face and to regularly change your gloves.

Staff at the V&A use a significant number of gloves and the museum takes the disposal of used gloves seriously. The gloves are recycled by a company called Kimberly-Clark Ltd. who consolidate and recycle them and turn them into eco-friendly products such as garden furniture or flower pots. It’s important to dispose of gloves correctly especially during these exceptional times.

Discarded nitrile glove on Manor Rd, North London
Discarded nitrile glove on Manor Rd, North London. Image credit: Brendan Cormier

This article was originally written on 20 April 2020

Related object from the collections

Woman’s leather gloves

Woman's gloves
Woman’s gloves, 1820s – 30s, France, kid leather. Museum no. CIRC.175-1917. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While gloves as protective wear date back to antiquity, they only emerged as a fashion accessory in the 13th century, growing in popularity over the next few centuries. In the early 19th century gloves were an indispensable accessory for women. They were worn for day and evening wear. Wealthy women owned many pairs suited to different occasions and carefully chosen to match particular outfits. Strict rules applied to the wearing of gloves. A woman would be considered undressed if she left the house ungloved and it was customary, for instance, to keep gloves on in church, at the theatre and at balls but to remove them before dining. Gloves soon became soiled, and dirty or worn gloves were a sign of slovenliness and poverty. While the wealthy might only wear a pair of pale coloured gloves once, most women had to devote time and effort to cleaning and repairing their gloves. The difficulties they encountered are reflected in the frequent advice given on glove care in contemporary women’s magazines and household manuals.

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