Most people are aware that properly framing a document or a piece of art is one of the best ways to keep such pieces clean and protect them from deterioration – that’s the whole point of archival framing practices used by museums and document collections. However, it’s less commonly known that some documents, prints, or other paper-based pieces of artwork may benefit from careful cleaning before framing to make the surface more legible and to remove contaminants that may cause future damage. Because of the fragility of paper, any such procedure needs to be done cautiously and with the right materials and processes to get the best results – and not cause damage.
When Not to Attempt Cleaning
Certificates, book pages, maps, manuscripts, and similar documents can benefit from being cleaned, but not all documents and works of art benefit from cleaning. Any document or artwork that contains material not firmly bound to the paper, such as charcoal, pencil, or pastel, should never undergo surface cleaning. Paper that is especially brittle, or documents of great age or value should be placed in the hands of an experienced conservator for evaluation and cleaning. Also, if a document is marred by old tape or leftover adhesive from a strip of tape, don't try to remove it yourself because this is very tricky and sometimes impossible to do without causing damage to the document.
Start Gently, Work Slowly
When cleaning any paper document or work of art, always start with the most gentle possible method of cleaning and work slowly and carefully to avoid damage. If a document is simply dusty, all that may be necessary is brushing the surface with a soft brush to remove the extra dust and dirt. The harsher a treatment is, the greater the chance of damaging the paper. Torn paper can’t be mended to its former state, and if the document content is erased, faded, or otherwise altered, there is no way to restore it.
Types of Cleaning Products Available
Document cleaning powder can help lift surface dust, dirt and grime from documents, as well as remove oil left from fingerprints. This type of powder is very soft and free of grit. It can be applied to a pad or purchased in a pad form. You would then rub it gently across the surface of the document to clean it.
If a document has surface deposits, such as insect specks or rust, they can be carefully picked off with a scalpel tip or the corner of a razor blade. Extreme care needs to be taken not to tear or puncture the paper, and if there is any doubt whether the buildup will come off, it's better to leave it in place than risk a tear.
Small patches of grime can be lifted with a gentle eraser, such as a vinyl block eraser or granulated vinyl erasers. Again, it is important to work very carefully to avoid causing damage. It is best to test the effect of an eraser on an obscure part of a document first to check the effect. Also, over-cleaning one area of a document can create a light-colored patch that stands out and makes the rest of the document look even dirtier.
Finally, when a document or piece of art has been cleaned, protect it from further dirt and damage with good framing practices. Use archival framing materials, such as acid free mat and mount board, UV filtering glass or acrylic glazing, and a good quality frame to seal the document and prevent dust, dirt and humidity from getting in. Well-cleaned and well-framed documents will stay in beautiful shape for a long time to come.