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As crowds return, Vatican warns against aggressive disinfecting of cultural objects


Igor Miske/Unsplash | CC0

John Burger - published on 05/21/20 - updated on 05/21/20

Post-lockdown period brings new concern to artistic patrimony in churches and museums.

Churches and museums in Italy, including St. Peter’s Basilica, were reopened to the public this week. But with the reappearance of crowds, even in limited numbers, attention is being paid to regular disinfecting of surfaces that visitors come in contact with.

But the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture is warning against an overenthusiastic regimen of cleaning, particularly when it comes to art objects and artifacts of cultural patrimony.

The Council this week posted a brief document that warned of the damage such objects can suffer if the wrong substances and methods are used.

Prevention is the best method, the document says: in order to avoid the need to disinfect the object, don’t let people touch it.

That’s not always feasible, of course, and in addition to paintings and sculptures, there are, for example, pews in churches where people sit.

“The use of corrosive products that also generate very harmful residues, such as bleach, ammonia and detergents, is totally contraindicated and should not be used on monumental complexes, historical buildings, archaeological sites, objects, movable heritage, fabrics, embroidery, etc.,” counsels the document, written by a Francisco Javier Boada González. “Where necessary, and in line with the recommendations of the health authorities, diluted hydro-alcoholic solutions or neutral soaps could be used, always applied with controlled pressure and under the advice of a cultural property conservation technician.”

Just as good old soap is among the most effective substances in neutralizing the novel coronavirus, soap is one of the best things that can be used in disinfecting architectural, historic and cultural treasures, the document says.

Soap and water is particularly recommended for liturgical vessels, as other products such as alcohol or bleach could damage the patina on them.

Not recommended is widespread fumigation, spraying exteriors with chlorine bleach solutions, or disinfecting works of art or historical books or documents.

And then there is the possibility of “isolating” objects that have been inadvertently touched.

“We must not forget that cultural heritage is a non-renewable asset,” the document says. “An inappropriate measure or the direct application of a disinfectant substance can cause irreversible damage to our heritage.”

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