How We Keep Museums Clean—Now and Forever

April 15, 2021

By Michael Lee

It has been over a year since the Grey Art Gallery closed its doors amidst the pandemic. Visitors have turned to the Grey’s website to explore past exhibitions, learn about the NYU Art Collection, and watch virtual programs. During the pandemic, the Grey has remained closed, serving as a socially-distanced study center for NYU students.

According to The Art Newspaper, 2020 saw a 77% drop in museum attendance around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic.[1] In addition to government-mandated closure of most museums in the U.S., the pandemic caused many people to be more conscious of cleanliness and more cautious of interacting with doorknobs and other frequently touched surfaces. Like other museums, the Grey is planning for future exhibitions with these new concerns in mind.

For museums, cleaning and preservation are key steps in preparing artworks for public display. Many museums share common protocols in preserving and cleaning art. The Grey is fortunate to have two experienced preparators on staff, Noah Landfield and Richard Wager. I had the pleasure of speaking with the pair to learn more about the many methods and rules for cleaning different types of art.

Some of art’s biggest enemies are dust and light (and any visitors who don’t heed the “DO NOT TOUCH” sign). For dust, Landfield often uses a small dust blower to prevent unnecessary contact with the work. A simple wipe with a soft brush or antistatic cloth for less fragile pieces often does the trick. Some artworks need greater protection from dust particles—these works are exhibited in a Plexiglas vitrine display case.

Light is a significant, and tricky, issue when it comes to art. Prolonged exposure to UV and infrared rays can cause damage such as cracking, lifting, and even changing of the material composition.[2] These effects are nearly impossible to fix without completely altering the artwork. On the other hand, the correct level of light is necessary to properly display a painting or sculpture and give visitors the best view. Landfield and Wager discussed how the Grey adapts its space for collections that have mediums with certain lighting restrictions. All museums and galleries are recommended to use LED lights, which don’t give off heat and are very energy efficient.[3] While it is up to the curator(s) to layout an exhibition, works that need very specialized levels of lighting are taken into consideration. Photography-heavy exhibitions, like Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989, often require adjusted lighting for certain photographs that are older or more delicate.[4]

Regardless of the Grey’s closure per NYU’s guidelines, Landfield and Wager have continued their work to keep the museum’s permanent collection clean and safe—and have considered how museum visitor policies might look different in a post-COVID world. While normalcy will hopefully return in the next few years, many people may still go outside with masks and remain hesitant to attend large indoor gatherings. Social distancing, use of hand sanitizer, and reduction of group visits may remain part of the policy to ensure museumgoers a safe, yet immersive experience.

These policies become more complicated when exhibitions feature interactive art. For example, in the Grey’s Radical Presence exhibition in 2013, there was one artwork installation that featured a climbable ladder and working microphone.[5] While pandemics won’t stop creativity and the creation of artworks that are meant to engage viewers, some questions remain: Do we allow such artworks to be touched by hundreds of strangers? How, and how often, should they be cleaned? Or, do we forbid any interaction? Museum HVAC systems may also need to be upgraded to increase air filtration and ventilation in exhibition spaces. Just like many other museums grappling with this new reality, the Grey staff patiently prepares for and ponders the future.


[1] Emily Sharpe, “Visitor Figures 2020: top 100 art museums revealed as attendance drops by 77% worldwide,” The Art Newspaper, March 30, 2021,,worldwide%20were%20forced%20to%20close.

[2] “How Does Lighting Affect a Museum’s Artwork?,” Konica Minolta Sensing Americas, updated June 6, 2016,

[3] “Techniques for Lighting Artwork,” DIY Network, accessed April 5, 2021,

[4] “Art after Stonewall, 1969-1989,” Grey Art Gallery, NYU, accessed April 5, 2021,

[5] “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art,” Grey Art Gallery, NYU, accessed April 5, 2021,

Michael Lee was an NYU student intern at the Grey Art Gallery. He majored in Economics and minored in Math at NYU’s College of Arts and Science; he received his BA in January 2021.