High level cleaning and maintenance at the Ashmolean


By Tim Crowley, Art Technician at the Ashmolean
4-minute read

While the Museum has been closed, our technician Tim has been taking advantage of the quiet galleries to do some rather unconventional cleaning and maintenance. In this week’s story, find out how he’s been caring for our collections behind the scenes and helping us to prepare for reopening. 

According to a quick Google search, the average person will shed approximately 1 million dead skin cells in a 24-hour period. With over a million visitors to the Ashmolean Museum per year (pre-covid), this accounts for a lot of our Museum dust. Add to this clothing fibres, pollen, hair and other city centre pollutants (thank you, internal combustion engine), and you’ve got quite a bit of cleaning to do. 

High level cleaning at the Ashmolean Museum

Although it may seem quite romantic (or slightly disconcerting) that there is a little bit of you left behind when you visit, sadly, we need to remove it.

This delicious organic mix is a great meal for museum pests who will dine out on this dust and possibly stay to feed on the actual object itself. This dust can also spoil the appearance of objects, and if left for too long, can be very difficult to remove. So, with the doors closed over lockdown we have taken the chance to do a little bit of non-invasive housekeeping.

Why don't we clean like this all the time? Well, excessive cleaning can be just as damaging to an object's integrity as under-cleaning. We therefore work to a strict conservation schedule to prevent us from accidentally cleaning away a bit of history. 


High level cleaning at the Ashmolean Museum


Most of our open display sculpture is straightforward to clean from the ground level, however, there are a few pieces that require a head for heights. This is where I enter with something called a ‘Mobile Elevated Working Platform’ (or a MEWP), and a very long extension lead.

The main atrium of the museum, with its skylights and zig-zagging staircases is a prime spot for dust collection. We have some of our largest casts and marble sculptures on the lower ground level which are inaccessible from a ladder. The MEWP allows us to move around the sculptures keeping our hands free to hoover and dust all their appendages.

The outstretched arm of Apollo is notorious for dust collection, as is the open marble book of Sir George Clarke. On the other side of the Museum, the Chantrey Bust wall is another area that requires MEWP access to clean.

It's best not to look down whilst cleaning the highest busts, with the MEWP sitting on the first floor and elevated to the third floor, you have a drop of five floors all the way down to the textiles gallery behind you!

White cast statue of the god Apollo, with his arm outstretched

Cast of the Statue of Apollo

High level cleaning at the Ashmolean Museum


The MEWP isn't only used for cleaning: it is also used to access our high-level lighting tracks. Even at low levels, light can be very damaging to our collection. Over time it can fade textiles, works on paper and even paintings. The only way to stop all damage is to switch off the lights completely. This isn’t usually an option, but since we’ve been closed to the public, we’ve had a chance to give our collection a well-deserved rest. 

We carefully monitor the intensity of light all around the museum, using a light metre to gauge the LUX, or the amount of light spread over a specific area. For sensitive, organic objects we cap LUX  at 50 to ensure their safety. For oil paintings, lacquered works, wood and furniture, we might use up to 200 LUX maximum. 

With the help of the MEWP, we’ve taken down and switched off specific spotlights that are focused on more sensitive items in our collections. As we get closer to reopening, I will be busy switching all these spotlights back on for you to see the collection at its best!


Not all heroes wear capes: some ride around on a MEWP, wear a back-mounted vacuum and have been said to resemble a young Sigourney Weaver from the final scenes of Aliens.

Unlike Sigourney, I cannot blow the dust out of an air lock into the infinity of space when I am cleaning an object. Until I can, I'll continue to make my way around the museum, carefully brushing the surface dust off Apollo’s arm towards the vacuum nozzle, taking the MEWP up to three flights of stairs to remove lights, and keeping our collections clean and cared-for behind the scenes.

High level cleaning at the Ashmolean Museum