First Aid for Your A's - Art, Assets, Archives

Diegy Velazquez: Venus mit Spiegel (+bandaid)

While it may not be quite as simple as applying a band aid, the idea is the same - to protect your A's from further damage, and to do what you can to fix what has already occurred.

The key to successful first aid is to understand the materials and the agents that are causing damage, and then proceed cautiously. Try to recognize when you need professional help, and also when items are not worth the effort to save them.

Some simple salvage Dos and Don'ts


  • Wear protective gear.

  • Bring environmental conditions under control: 70º F and 50% relative humidity. Use dehumidifiers to lower humidity, and fans to keep air circulating.

  • Move items away from windows and damp walls.

  • Deal with your priority salvage items first.

  • Deal with wettest items first.

  • Deal with organic materials before inorganic materials.

  • Freeze wet and moldy items that you can’t air-dry in 48 hours (see Freezing and Air Drying).

  • As soon as possible, remove soot and ash from dry items using a hand vac or nozzle attachment (not the brush!). A “dry cleaning” soot sponge (see List of Useful Salvage Supplies) can then be used for further cleaning.


  • Wipe off ash. It’s very abrasive and will scratch the surface.

  • Turn objects or unfold textiles or paper before vacuuming them. (The soot will disperse.)

  • Rinse moldy, sooty or ash-covered pieces.

  • Stack wet items.


Water damage is the most common problem after a disaster. It’s important to determine whether the water is (relatively) clean, dirty, salty or contaminated, because the type of water damage will affect how you handle and dry items. Note: If the water has been contaminated by hazardous materials, consult with a state health official or hazardous waste specialist.


When flooding results in mud damage, it is useful to determine the mud’s source, since its composition can affect safety and salvage procedures. There may be deposits of sand and salt from coastal flooding, or silt and clay from river flooding. Hidden in the mud may be broken or sharp objects, such as tools. Chemical or biological contamination is also a possibility. (If you suspect contamination, consult with a state health official or hazardous waste specialist.)


Where there’s water damage — even severe dampness — mold can develop within 48 hours. It grows fast when there’s high temperature and humidity plus lack of light and air circulation. Mold is a fungus that spreads by reproducing tiny airborne spores, and feeds on organic materials. (It can grow on plastics, too.) It is both a potential health hazard and a threat to your “A’s” — so work safely and as quickly as possible to confine a mold invasion. [See Beating the Mold Monster]

Soot and Ash

Ash is very abrasive; soot is greasy and acidic, will adhere to every surface, and is harder to remove the longer it remains. For these reasons, do not directly touch the affected surface of items contaminated by soot and/or ash. Get them treated by a professional.


Metals can be corroded not only by water damage, but also by post-disaster high humidity in warm temperatures. Iron and steel are most susceptible to surface deterioration. Corrosion can be green, white, grey, brownish-black or rust-colored. (Note: Lead corrosion is whitish and powdery. Make sure you wear protective gear, including a NIOSH-compliant respirator). It’s essential to keep corrosion-affected metal out of contact with other items. 

Freezing Buys Time

Freezing will stop mold growth and other damage (e.g. swelling, color bleeding). A commercial (large) freezer is preferable, but a home freezer is okay. As you have time, you can thaw and dry items either by air drying them yourself or having valuable items commercially vacuum frozen or heat dries.


  • Pack wet or moldy items in single layers in sturdy, waterproof containers (90% full).

  • Make sure to use freezer or waxed paper to separate/buffer materials.

Okay to freeze:

  • Prints or drawings (freeze soluble/delicate media ASAP)

  • Coated papers (also freeze ASAP)

  • Most photographs, transparencies, film

  • Books (pack them spine down)

  • Paper documents (separated in single sheets or as small piles up to ¼”)

  • Small wooden objects (boxes, baskets, carvings)

  • Textiles

  • Leather

Never freeze:

  • Paintings

  • Ivory

  • Bone

  • Horn

  • Magnetic tape

Freezing Tip

After a major disaster, large commercial disaster-recovery services usually set up operations at a central location. Find them through a local emergency management office; you may be able to buy supplies and/or arrange temporary freezer space.




Air Drying

Air drying requires a lot of both space and time, because most objects need to dry slowly to prevent distortion or cracking. Also it’s important to turn and flip objects often, and to replace blotting material when wet.

Air drying can be done in an indoor space with good air circulation. If using fans, do not let them blow directly on items. Never use a portable heater. You can set up a drying area outdoors, but avoid direct sunlight and make sure to bring items inside overnight.

Drying Tips:

Plastic racks are best: they will increase evaporation.

    • Place items face up on absorbent material on a flat surface, and exchange blotting material frequently

    • Elevate 3-D items off the floor or ground to let air circulate.

    • Keep light-sensitive materials (such as watercolors, dyes) away from sunlight.


Items that have been in contact with salt water, mud, sewage or other contaminants should be rinsed under a gentle stream of cool, clean running water from a hose or faucet, or bathed in cool, clean water in a series of shallow tubs. Blot off mud or dirt with a sponge or soft cloth, and do not scrub muddied artwork.

Okay to rinse:

  • Unpainted wooden furniture, sculpture, objects

  • Ceramics and glass

  • Stone and metal (unpainted)

  • Photos, negatives, film and magnetic tape (can be kept in fresh, cold water for up to 36 hours)

  • Dye-fast textiles

Removing dried mud or mold

Dried mud or mold (powdery, not slimy or soft) can be removed from the surface of artwork and other materials, but should not be attempted on wood, canvas, or metallic surfaces if there is blistering, flaking or peeling paint. Do not use an air compressor to blow off dirt.

Removal techniques:

  • Use a clean, soft, natural bristle brush.

  • Dust with a soft, clean dry cloth.

  • Use a HEPA vacuum on low suction (with a piece of cheesccloth or plastic screen between the nozzle and the object).

  • Use an air bulb to gently disperse the dirt (or canned air, if the piece is strong enough).

To learn more:

Western Association for Art Conservation. Betty Walsh, “Salvage at a Glance,”
WAAC Newsletter, Vol. 19, Number 2, May l997.
(The page is an index of newsletters: use the author search for Betty Walsh.)
This easy-to-use salvage reference chart is organized by artistic media. It’s geared for museums, but the DIY methods can also be used in your studio.

Western Association for Art Conservation. Betty Walsh, “Salvage at a Glance,” WAAC Newsletter, Vol. 19, Number 2, May l997. (The page is an index of newsletters: use the author search for Betty Walsh.) This easy-to-use salvage reference chart is organized by artistic media. It’s geared for museums, but the DIY methods can also be used in your studio.

We will add more information to this page soon relating to art works damaged as a result of Hurricane Sandy.

 The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works has a specially trained team, AIC-CERT, to respond to most disasters. While they typically focus on the needs of collecting institutions, this disaster has been so catastrophic to artists that they are doing all they can to help artists as well. Here are some links from AIC:

Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) guidelines for handling flood-damaged art works

Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) listing of conservation resources-includes freeze-drying contractors and recovery contractors. The list is geared to the needs of cultural institutions, but has some resources that may also be useful to artists.

Studio Protector Blog: Working with a Gallery After a Disaster

Artists-Register for Assistance with Recovering Your Artworks (NYArtRecovery)