Medals, decorations and orders are among the more valuable and sensitive of artifacts. They may be composed of silver, gold or bronze, may be enameled, and in the case of some high orders, may be set with jewels.
As originally awarded or issued, most medals came to the recipient in individual boxes or presentation cases. Quite often older cases are composed of unstable materials and adhesives. These cases should not be used to store or display a medal, but should be preserved as an integral part of the artifact group. More modern cases are more stable.
Medal groups will usually be encountered mounted in one of two styles: swing mounted or court mounted. Swing mounting is the manner in which medals were usually worn prior to the Second World War. Swing mounted medals are mounted on a bar and suspended by their ribbons. The actual medals are free to swing and contact each other. The weight of the medals also puts stress on the ribbons.
Court mounted medal groups are mounted on a solid backing and the medals are secured in place, often with nylon fishing line.
Gloves should be worn when handling medals to prevent fingerprints on the metal surfaces and possible soiling of ribbons. Fingers leave traces of acids and oils on whatever they touch. This silver medal has a fresh fingerprint on the surface. Unless it is removed promptly it will permanently scar the medal. Brasso, Silvo and similar commercial metal polishes are very abrasive and should never be used to clean medals. Fresh fingerprints can be removed with a soft rag or Q-Tip.
Medals that have been worn swing mounted will likely have edge dings or knocks and the surface area in contact with other medals may be abraided. The medal group on the left is badly tarnished and shows considerable small face and edge knocks.
Riker Mounts are an inexpensive method of storing and displaying medals. They come in various dimensions and depths. Any associated documents can be stored with the group in the mount.
A simple mount for storage can be made with coroplast or foamcore sheet. The sheet is cut to the desired size and the group is located in position.
Slits are made in the sheet and twill tape is passed though the slits and tied on the reverse. The medal group can now be stored or handled safely.
Normally the patina (tarnish) on an object should never be removed as it both protects the surface of the object and usually presents a pleasing appearance. Constant cleaning may erode a thin coating of gold or silver, revealing a core of base metal. However, when considering the treatment of medals they should be considered in their historical context. As military decorations, they were meant to be worn and they were polished before wear. If the medals are to be displayed, it is acceptable to clean them.
Medals and some metal insignia may be cleaned with mild soap and water and a soft toothbrush. This will remove dirt without removing the patina. After cleaning they can be given a coat of microcrystalline wax. Medal ribbons should be removed before any cleaning treatment is undertaken. For certain display purposes, discoloured or damaged ribbons may be replaced with reproduction or new ribbons, but the original ribbons should be retained and labeled.
Modern reproductions of medal ribbons are usually made of nylon or other synthetics and do not have the lustre of the original silk ribbons.