You might just think it's just a door knob, but in Southwestern Ontario's heritage homes, it's also a piece of history.
You might just think it’s just a door knob, but in Southwestern Ontario’s heritage homes, it’s also a piece of history.
That’s the challenge for museums and heritage homes looking to open to the public in the post-pandemic new normal: Balancing cleaning and safety with the preservation of history going back 100 years and more.
Tillsonburg’s Annandale House National Historic Site opened the doors to its Pratt Gallery last week for its current exhibition, a display of 20 modern and historical quilts staged by Annandale and the Stationhouse Quilters, but is keeping the historic home closed for now.
Museum curator Patricia Phelps said the issue is in government-mandated cleaning protocols. Many Health Canada-recommended cleaners could be disastrous for the heritage and historic features in a home such as Annandale House.
“High-touch surfaces like hand railings, door frames and door knobs have to be cleaned prior to and in between visitors. We allow the public up the main staircase; we allow the public through all of the rooms,” Phelps said. “The cleaners needed are harmful to those surfaces.
“We want to make sure the health and safety of our visitors, and the perseveration of the historic house, is maintained.”
Phelps said Annandale House is taking direction from the Canadian Conservation Institute, which is under the direction of Canadian Heritage.
Simon Lambert, the agency’s manager of preventive conservation, said the agency has been working to develop guidelines for museums, art galleries and historic homes looking for the best way to reopen safely while protecting their collections.
“Our mandate and focus is how public-health guidance affects how they care for collections. For instance, historic houses and the considerations there with disinfecting and cleaning,” Lambert said. “Our message – very strong – is we should not be disinfecting heritage materials without the advice of a conservator.”
Museums and art galleries were allowed to open at the beginning of the province’s phase two on June 12, but with strict cleaning and distancing protocols in place. Phelps said Annandale House is one of the more fortunate historic homes in the area because of the home’s 1989 addition.
“Because we have the new addition, we can meet the requirements and preserve the house and yet be open and functioning and have people in,” Phelps said.
Patrons can book small group appointments and surfaces such as washrooms, elevators and door knobs are thoroughly disinfected.
Developing the guidelines for how to ensure the safety of a variety of collections – some 100 or more years old and comprising countless types of material – is a lengthy process including many experts and even the Canadian Conservation Institute’s in-house biologist.
Lambert said they stress that any non-heritage space, such as washrooms and elevators, should be disinfected as Health Canada recommends – but other seemingly common cleaners can cause irreparable damage.
“For example, using isopropyl alcohol on a surface – the surface can become cloudy and it can dissolve the finish, and it can accelerate corrosion or dissolve pigments,” Lambert said.
Other possible solutions include only allowing the public in rotating portions of the home, so that other rooms can “quarantine” themselves. Anything to control the flow of people, including appointments and timed entry, is also included.
It’s a challenge the conservation institute is seeing a lot with small- and medium-sized historic homes. For larger organizations, staff conservators and experts can decide what cleaners are safe while, in art galleries and museums, there are far fewer high-touch surfaces and artifacts are often behind glass.
When the team at Annandale got word they might be able to stage the exhibit, Phelps said things moved quickly: First, quilters participating in the show had a physically distant drop-off of their quilts. Following conservation guidelines issues by Lambert and his team, the quilts were isolated for seven days and the exhibit staged in the week after that for the June 29 opening.
“We worked really hard to open for the summer months and we’re really excited we’re able to have this incredible show for this period,” she added.
The Woodstock Museum announced Thursday it too will be reopening next week. And while its housed in a historic space of its own, curator Karen Houston said they have fewer preservation-related issues.
“We’re asking people to use the modern staircase, all of that can be cleaned without incident, in the elevator if they have to, again all modern. It’s really not the same issue,” Houston said.
Because the space is more town hall than home, Houston said there are fewer doors and railings the public would touch, and the museum got approval for janitorial services at a recent city council meeting.
Phelps said they’re excited to welcome the public back to see the quilt show in the Pratt Gallery. Keeping the historic house closed until there’s a better solution or guidelines are further relaxed is a small price to pay.
“The house was saved by citizens and it has been a project by the community. It took 25 years to restore the home to the point it is now,” Phelps said.
“Our goal to keep it for multiple future generations to enjoy. If that means closing to the public for a little while, we do what we have to do.”