Museum and gallery cleaning - creating a masterpiece

25th of October 2013
Museum and gallery cleaning - creating a masterpiece
Museum and gallery cleaning - creating a masterpiece

Museums and galleries are extremely busy public spaces, demanding cleaning services that are frequent, effective, safe and discreet – with the added specialist know-how required to work in environments containing valuable and delicate works of art.

Tony O’Shea, operations director for KGB Cleaning and Support Services in the UK, highlights the particular issues that need to be taken into consideration, building on his company’s experience of working with the Tate galleries.

Europe’s museums contribute a huge amount to the region, boosting the economy by attracting tourists and improving the well-being of all who visit them. These cultural centres welcome millions of people through their doors every year, making them some of the most frequently used facilities around. We are fortunate to have so many world-class museums and galleries in Europe – from The Louvre in Paris, to the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and Tate Galleries in the UK.

Cleaning regimes for such locations have to be as carefully planned as any new installations or exhibitions. The grand refurbishment of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum – which took over a decade and cost 375 million euros – may have made headlines due to the extensive building work it entailed; but the resulting reorganisation of all its exhibits, apart from Rembrandts’ The Night Watch, will also have needed a comprehensive rethink in terms of cleaning and maintenance needs.

An awareness of the surroundings and a sensitivity for the artworks and exhibits is an absolute must. Thankfully, incidents like the one at the Ostwall Museum in Dortmund, Germany – where an overzealous cleaner damaged a piece of artwork, worth an estimated 810,000 euros, because she thought it was dirty – are a rare occurrence.

The sculpture, by German artist Martin Kippenberger, featured a rubber trough containing a layer of paint to represent dried rainwater, an integral part of the piece. However, the cleaner had other ideas and, in the words of a museum spokesperson, “removed the patina from the four walls of the trough”.

This story may raise a wry smile, and fuel the on-going debate about the merits of modern art, but it also underlines some particular issues that need to be considered when cleaning public spaces of this nature.

The works of art within the collections of any museum or gallery are extremely valuable, not only in monetary terms, but also in relation to their place within the history of art and the contribution they make to our cultural heritage. It’s therefore essential that operatives have a heightened awareness of the sensitivity of their surroundings, and that they are impeccably trustworthy.

Cleaning operatives working at such locations should be subject to a strict vetting process, as they have access to many works of art, some of them priceless, and will also regularly come into contact with members of the public, including young children and vulnerable adults, as they carry out their duties.

All of KGB’s operatives must have clearance via a DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check – the new UK body that has replaced the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) and the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) – and previous experience working in a similar environment is desirable when recruiting new employees.

Specialist cleaning

Collections are often displayed in architecturally interesting buildings; whether they have special historic significance, or feature modern extensions such as the British Museum in London. This often requires specialist services to cope with ornate or large exterior windows and high level cleaning for light-filled galleries. The correctly trained operatives, conforming to each country’s relevant regulations on working at height, using methods that take into account the surrounding architecture and space available are absolutely essential.

Whatever the design of a museum or gallery’s surroundings, there are many common issues when it comes to cleaning these buildings. Without a doubt, cleaning is absolutely essential to museums and galleries, not only in terms of enhancing the visitor experience, but also to reduce potential damage to artworks, and to send a positive message to donors, stakeholders and supporters.

As well as the usual issues with general litter and food stuffs, toilet cleaning and the like, the main ‘front of house’ problem for museums is dust. Dust is made up of a wide range of matter. Soil, soot, salt and dirt particles are brought into museums from the outside world every day on the shoes of visitors and staff; and, whilst inside the museum, human hair and dead skin is also added to the mix.

Dust can absorb moisture so it can affect humidity in confined areas if not dealt with. It also attracts and harbours pests, can absorb and carry pollutants, with the ability to cause staining or collect in pockets, physically damaging objects by distorting their shapes and causing cracks. It’s therefore very important to control dust in every main exhibition area.

Adapting to the exhibitions

A strong understanding of the museum sector’s needs, and the ability to adapt, are key to delivering the levels of service required – and this comes from direct experience. KGB Cleaning and Support Services has been Tate’s housekeeping contractor for 12 years, providing a full cleaning service for all front of house spaces, public toilets, offices and storage facilities at the UK’s Tate Britain, Tate Modern and Tate Liverpool.

We also provide attendants for the public cloakrooms, aspects of Tate’s porterage requirements and waste management, as well as window cleaning and specialist high level cleaning. We have found flexibility to redeploy staff in response to changing visitor numbers or new installations is crucial when working in busy museum environments.

For example, when the weather is poor, more cloakroom staff are needed to cope with coats, bags and umbrellas, but when the weather is good visitors have less baggage and clothing to deposit, and operatives can spend more time in the external areas, as this generates an increased amount of litter to clear up.

With the high volume of visitors, numerous educational/learning areas and many public toilets throughout each Tate site, cleaning regimes need to reach extremely high standards, and be carried out frequently. For example, toilets in the public areas need to be cleaned and topped up with consumable products on an hourly basis, and even more frequently at peak times. Special care is also taken when cleaning the educational and cafeteria areas, as small children tend to bring with them, and leave behind, the remnants of sweets and chewing gum.

Regular liaison with gallery curators about how they wish the cleaning regime to be undertaken in and around new exhibits or one-off exhibitions is also essential. This was particularly important at last year’s retrospective of Damien Hirst’s work, held at Tate Modern, with its diamond encrusted skull and sharks in formaldehyde.

Safety first

Cleaning in museums and galleries needs to be responsive as well as proactive, so services often have to be delivered when members of the public are visiting the buildings and using the facilities, moving health and safety issues to the top of the agenda.

Making sure that cleaning is undertaken in a responsible manner is very important, so, for example, using battery powered floor cleaning machines that have no trailing leads will help to minimise the opportunity for trips and falls. It also means cleaning needs to be thorough and effective, but also discreet, not intruding on visitors’ experiences of the galleries.

Many of our operatives have experience of working in this type of environment, which helps greatly. Noise can be unwelcome intrusion when contemplating works of art, so selecting cleaning machines that operate quietly is also recommended.

Museums and galleries need to attract funding and sponsorship from public and private bodies, and therefore have a duty to ensure they are operating in the most ethical and cost effective ways. This means that sustainability issues are becoming increasingly important, and so cleaning and facilities maintenance regimes need to take this into account.

Implementing sustainable cleaning solutions for the Tate is a key objective and we have been working with Tate’s carbon manager to identify how KGB may assist with their own targets. These include separation of general and recyclable waste, and colour coding the different waste streams.

Cleaning and maintaining our most prestigious museums and galleries is challenging – but also an honour. By helping to maintain these high profile institutions, we are also playing a key role in safeguarding our cultural heritage, and preserving it for future generations.


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