To dust, or not to dust, that is the question.

Conservation Assistant, Scotney Castle

Lesley McCall - Conservation Assistant

When visiting Scotney on a Friday you might have seen the house team at work, taking everything off the dining room table, dusting the collection and resetting it all again. You may think that the subject of dust is a rather bland; however, it is an interesting part of my work here at Scotney and I would like to share it with you.

As part of our conservation plan it is important to keep on top of dust levels in order that it does not have a detrimental effect on the collection. A zero level of dust is the ideal target; however, in reality this is not always possible or desirable.

Particulate matter, otherwise known as dust, is one of the ten agents of deterioration which affect our collection.  Dust can be defined as a fine, dry powder consisting of tiny particles of earth or waste matter lying on the ground or on surfaces or carried in the air.*  It is mistakenly believed that dust consists largely of skin cells, but this is not true as normal household dust will contain only 3% of dead skin.  Two thirds of dust is made up of outside dirt brought in on shoes and airborne particles, for example, soot from traffic pollution or household fires.  Pollen is often found, along with carpet fluff, fibres from clothes, some pet hair and particles from floors and ceilings, textile hangings and flock wallpapers. If left unchecked, dust can be responsible for encouraging pests and the formation of mould.

Of all the agents of deterioration, dust is the most expensive to control, for example, the average cleaning costs for dust, per property is £30,000pa, compared to £10,000 for other agents of deterioration*.  The distribution of dust will vary according to the number of visitors to the house.  Some dust will be distributed through the air while heavier particles like those carried on your shoes, soon fall to the ground and tend to land nearer to the entrance, the hall and beneath window sills.  Due to the weight of these particles, research has shown that this type of dust does not usually rise above 0.3m from the ground.  The dust levels in the property will also vary according to the visitor route, with the worst affected areas being within a depth of 1.5-2m along the route and between hip and shoulder height.  Hence, the importance of a daily dust around the house before we open.

Presentation of the property is important and although we do not wish visitors to be facing dusty surfaces and objects, we do have to ensure that we achieve the correct balance between cleaning and conservation.  Some objects are more fragile than others and it is advisory not to clean every day as the repeated removal of dust can cause abrasion. Therefore, you may see some objects that look as if in need of cleaning but a decision will have been taken to clean less frequently in order to preserve the integrity of the object and to reduce the risk of accidental damage. Examples of these objects at Scotney will be textiles ie. Chairs, sofas and curtains.  Managing conservation means that some parts of the collection will have to bear tolerable levels of dust and will be cleaned on a less frequent basis.  Those of you who are taller than me (5ft2ins) will have the advantage of seeing problematic areas in higher areas of the house, and I would appreciate having these pointed out if they have been missed!  Next time you see one of us at work, why not ask what we are up to and what problems we are facing, such as to dust or not to dust?

Lesley McCall, Conservation Assistant




National Trust Website - Managing the effects of dust and dirt on collections and historic interiors.

Oxford Living Dictionary