Last week our Curatorial and Restoration teams joined forces for an important project: thoroughly cleaning Monticello from floor to ceiling. Affectionally (and accurately) dubbed the “Big Clean,” this annual event helps us preserve the house and prepare for a new year of visitors—but it’s also a lot of work.
So how does one go about cleaning a 200-year-old, 11,000-square-foot house?
“The short answer is, very carefully,” explained Collections and Exhibitions Manager, Tabitha Pryor Corradi. “Just like a private residence, historic homes have to be cleaned. What makes our task different is the age, sensitivity, and value of the objects we’re handling.”
It’s important to note that the Big Clean isn’t the only time of year that the house receives TLC. Indeed, museum technicians spend two or three hours cleaning the house each day before visitors arrive. This typically involves vacuuming the floors, dusting hard surfaces, and a deep clean of a different room each day of the week. Yet, as Museum Technician Caitlin Hepner explained, the volume of foot traffic makes the Big Clean a necessary addition.
“With more than 400,000 annual visitors and tours running 364 days a year, the house is exposed to a lot of dust and grime,” Hepner said. “Our job is to mitigate the impact it has on the collection, but with two-story ceilings in some rooms, reaching every surface isn’t possible on a daily basis—nor is it desired from a preservation standpoint. This is our chance to really address all the objects and spaces.”
Carried out over three consecutive days, the Big Clean begins before sunrise. A team of eight or nine people start each day at 6:30 a.m., and typically finish around 3:30 p.m. This means that visitors have a unique opportunity to see the work in progress and speak with the staff. “These are definitely my favorite work days of the year,” said Museum Technician Malia Sbach. “We’re usually behind the scenes, so we love this opportunity to interact with guests, answer questions, and share the role that the Collections team plays in preserving the house and objects.”
For both safety and efficiency, the work is primarily done in teams of two people. One person secures a delicate object while the other cleans it, for example, or one vacuums while their partner comes along behind them to wipe down the surface and capture any errant microparticles. You won’t find the type of abrasive cleaning products that are often used in private homes, however. Protecting the objects is the first priority, and the Collections team only uses the gentlest of tools. This means special vacuums with HEPA filters, brushes with horse hair bristles, soft sponges that won’t damage surfaces, microfiber cloths, and extremely gentle cleansers.
Just as you might expect in a regular building with high ceilings, scaffolding is used to access otherwise out-of-reach places. The delicate task of installing and removing these scaffolds falls to our Restoration department. “Scaffolding is our responsibility during the Big Clean,” explains Architectural Conservator Lucy Midelfort. “Our goal is to provide Collections with the access they need, while also ensuring there’s no damage to the house or objects.”
Yet the Big Clean provides learning opportunities for the Restoration team, too. “We are constantly monitoring the condition of the mansion, but just like our colleagues in Collections, there’s only so much we can see and access from the ground,” Midelfort explained. “We use the higher vantage point to do condition assessments of architectural elements, new research, and special projects—like this year’s reinstallation of an iron pulley with mahogany wheel on the south wall of the entrance Hall that had been removed for research.”
After three days of hard work, the project ended on schedule, and without incident. “I’m delighted to say that this year’s Big Clean was uneventful—and we like it that way,” said Tabitha Pryor Corradi. “We found the objects in good condition, and that’s confirmation that our daily and weekly cleaning routines are working well.”
“At the end of the day, this type of work requires a lot of focus and it can be exhausting,” Pryor Corradi added, “but it’s also rewarding. It’s a pleasure to work alongside such talented individuals who are dedicated to preserving Monticello.”
With the 2019 Big Clean in the books, Monticello is sparkling and ready for your next visit. Please join us on the mountaintop!