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Tackling dust in historic houses

A close-up of a hand gently brushing a dusty surface with a specialist brush, at Tyntesfield in Bristol
Conservation cleaning and dusting with a specialist brush | © National Trust Images/Peter Hall

Since 1999, the National Trust has been undertaking scientific research into how dust affects historic surfaces in houses. Find out why the issue is important to our heritage conservation work, and how we’ve enacted the findings of the ongoing research.

Why is this research important?

Our research into the effects of dust, partly funded by the Leverhulme Trust, has been carried out by the University of East Anglia, in partnership with the National Trust, Historic Royal Palaces and English Heritage.

These three heritage organisations are responsible for looking after historic houses whose contents are vulnerable to dust because they are on open display, instead of being protected within display cases.

Our conservators therefore wish to find out how dust interacts with historic surfaces, how it affects the appearance of objects, how those objects are cleaned, and how we protect them from dust.

Findings of the research

  • Dust can damage historic objects by altering their appearance, making them difficult to see, and hiding historical information.
  • Dust can interact with an object’s surface, causing physical damage and chemical alteration.
  • Attempts to remove dust can cause damage by rubbing surfaces too hard, or cleaning away original materials.
  • Where dust has been left in place a long time, it binds strongly to the surface of an object and requires more complex cleaning techniques.

We now know that the dust most visible on surfaces comes mainly from human clothing and, of course, the majority of humans in historic houses are visitors.

More still to understand

It's not so clear why dust sticks strongly to some surfaces if left in place for a long time. If we understood this process more, we could determine:

  • How often surfaces should be cleaned
  • When they should be cleaned and how
  • How to reduce the amount of dust landing on an object
  • The cost of cleaning and protection, compared to income from visitors
A conservation assistant carefully dusting objects on the shelves at Greenway, Devon
A conservation assistant dusting objects at Greenway | © National Trust Images / John Millar

Different measures for different properties

To reduce the wear and abrasion on surfaces, loose surface dust is cleaned off only when it is really necessary.

Cleaning becomes necessary when dust spoils the presentation of a room, but this depends on the nature of the house.

Some houses such as Polesden Lacey are kept looking glittery and sparkling, to remind us of the glamorous parties once held there, so any visible dust is removed.

Other houses look more worn and dusty to remind us of their age and condition when acquired by the Trust, such as Chastleton House and Calke Abbey, where historic dust remains visible.

How we tackle dust

On days when properties are open and before visitors arrive, we remove dust from every floor our visitors walk on using a vacuum cleaner.

We also clean surfaces that show dust, such as dark and shiny wooden tables near the visitor route. For these smooth flat surfaces we use soft cotton dusters folded into a pad.

Each week we dust more delicate surfaces that are further away from visitors, such as chair backs and table legs. We use special brushes and collect the dust in a vacuum cleaner. We tackle two to three rooms each week in turn.

Every year we also dust every room thoroughly from ceiling to floor, including all its contents. Many surfaces are cleaned just once a year.

More fragile objects are dusted even less often: every three or five years for books in dusty locations, or ceramics in draughty cabinets; every five or 10 years for tapestries; every 25 for paintings.

Caring for collection objects at Tyntesfield, North Somerset
A member of the National Trust team dusting collection objects | © National Trust Images/Rob Stothard

The difference between cleaning objects ‘then and now’ is that the team today use a little science to look after our objects. Over-cleaning and the use of abrasive chemicals have long since gone, replaced with a range of more sensitive tools of the trade.

A quote by Stephen ByrneNational Trust former house steward at Springhill

Some of this work is carried out by trained volunteers who are crucial, for example, in the cleaning of books in our care. We rely heavily on their help and expertise to not only carefully clean but to check condition, and to make dust covers to reduce exposure.

Prevention before cure

If we reduce the amount of dust that falls on objects, they don’t need to be cleaned so often. This reduces the risk of damaging objects that are handled or moved during cleaning, and allows staff more time to monitor and record their condition.

As the greatest source of visible dust is people, we try to protect fragile objects from dust by:

  • Designing visitor routes so that visitors don’t stand too close to fragile objects that cannot be dusted very often, such as state beds. Ropes and stanchions keep visitors at a distance for this reason.
  • Keeping visitor routes as straightforward as possible – the more people twist and turn, the more dust they produce.
  • Protecting dust-sensitive objects near the visitor route, for example using case covers or closing cabinet doors. These objects may be uncovered or opened on special occasions for visitors to enjoy.
  • Placing the most fragile objects in special display cases that also control light, temperature and humidity to safe levels, for example the Chinese Bed at Calke Abbey and the King’s Room at Knole.

Different viewpoints on dust

We are also interested in how visitors and staff see dust, because this affects how staff present historic interiors and therefore how visitors respond to them. For example, whether they view the house as a home or a place of work, and enjoy its nostalgic decay or aristocratic splendour.

Understanding how people perceive dust in the places in our care helps us to know whether we are cleaning too much or too little, and how to adjust the pattern in each place.

Volunteer examining a book as part of conservation work in the library at Greyfriars' House and Garden, Worcestershire

Research at the National Trust

We're an Independent Research Organisation recognised by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Our research takes place in many forms – from the PhDs we sponsor and practical testing of new conservation techniques to the hundreds of research projects we collaborate in or host at places in our care each year.

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