Saving Family Possessions

frank-shis.jpgMost of us have things handed down through our families for generations-photographs, paintings, books, albums, etc. The ideal enviroment according to most professional conservators is a modern museum environment. Since this is not possible in the average home, the following is an overview of the most satisfactory methods. You will find you can accomplish some suggestions more easily than others. Do the best you can.

1. Determine Content of Object

Organic objects can be either animal produces or plant products.
Animal products include leather, bone, tusk (ivory) hair (wool), shell, coral, pearls silk. Plant products include wood, paper, fabric (cotton, and linen, some pigments (dyes) , bamboo and reed. Inorganic objects can be metal, ceramic, glass, stone & marble, gemstone. are plastic, some fabrics like nylon, polyester, acrylic, etc.

Organic objects deteriorate faster than inorganic objects and often faster than synthetic objects. Many items are made of two or more separate components. Try to determine the most sensitive parts of your piece first.

Examples of combined objects,
Books -– made up of paper, cardboard, glue, thread, fabric leather.
Photographs – paper, metal or glass, binder layer, image layer
Wedding Dresses – fabric, buttons, zipper, boning

2. Environment

Storage conditions will determine rate of deterioration.
Light – all forms of light can be damaging, but sunlight and florescent light are the most detrimental, causing fading of colors and images, and weakening of paper and fabrics.

Heat – High temperatures can cause fading, brittleness, weakening, increased insect attack, and speeds up deterioration. Fluctuations in temperature will cause objects to expand and contract much like a tight jar lid that loosens when placed under hot water. Constant expansion and contraction will stress the components of a piece and cause them to breakdown.

Temperature is closely related to humidity. In normal household conditions a 10 degree fall in temperature, will result in a 20% rise in humidity. Objects stored in lower temperatures are subjected to higher humidity and vise versa. Most museums and archival storage facilities have carefully regulated humidity and temperature settings

All objects need a certain amount of moisture to maintain their structure. Low humidity can cause brittleness and weakness. High humidity can cause an increase in chemical deterioration, can invite insects, mildew, and corrosion (rust and tarnish, and can bleed, change or fade colors. Fluctuations in humidity will also cause expansion and contraction.

Sources of fluctuations to avoid – attics, exterior walls, window sills. Sources of heat to avoid- heater ducts, fireplaces, light from both the sun and incandescent bulbs. Places to avoid – basements, attics, exterior walls, garages, sheds, humid rooms like bathrooms and kitchens.

Insects and molds will increase as a result of heat, moisture, uncleanness, etc. This includes all living organisms that actively feed on organic materials like clothes moths, silverfish, carpet beetles, earwigs, bookworms, wood beetles, and fungi.

Chemical pollutants will cause colors to fade or change, discoloration, rapid degradation and weakening. Air pollution can be acids from decomposition, cleaning chemicals, smoke, sea air, car exhaust, factory emissions, smog, ozone (from photocopiers, and acids from storage containers (Plastic storage containers contain both air and contact type pollutants.)

Avoid PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) plastics, magnetic (sticky) page albums, shoeboxes, unsealed wood containers, bookcases, chests and drawers, paperclips, tape, paint fumes, rubberbands.

Many paper products made of wood pulp and have high levels of lignin (a naturally occurring substance that releases acidic fumes when decomposing). They also can have alum and rosin for sizing, chemical that also cause deterioration.

3. Storage and Display

The best environment besides a museum is a temperature of 55-70 degrees F. and humidity between 45 to 65% RH. Try to minimize exposure to light, dust, insects and harmful chemicals.

Some guidelines for home storage include: Store inside your home where you are most comfortable. Store in a first floor closet, away from exterior walls, in the dark and on the shelf. Use only boxes, tissue paper, folders, and papers designed for archival use. Display items in darker hallway or room. Have them framed with acid-free supplies. Never have items touch the glass. Always have spacers put in even for photographs.


Acid free paper and board has an all-rag fiber content or chemically purified wood fibers and is manufactured to produce a neutral or alkaline pH condition.

Lignin-free paper and board has had most of the lignin removed.

Buffered paper and board is treated with an alkaline substance to neutralize acids and in many cases, act as a reserve against future acidity.

pH neutral is a pH 7.0. Acid is below and alkaline is above 7.0

Polypropylene is another type of inert plastic used in preservation.

Mylar ® is a registered trademark of DuPont company for polyester, an inert plastic used in preservation

Inert materials will not break down into harmful acids.

Acid free papers are the most basic for proper storage. Available in folders, envelopes, boxes and tissue paper note: outside chemicals will cause acid-free papers to eventually become acidic (acid migration). Use buffered materials to avoid acid-migration for sensitive objects like paper and black and white photographs. Lignin-free and acid free 100% cotton rag are the best quality paper to use. Safe plastics (Mylar and polypropylene are good protection against contact pollutants.

5.Container Guidelines:

Albums -Use acid-free paper pages with safe plastic covers sleeves and top loaders. Use only safe plastic corners, acid free tapes or acid-free adhesives for mounting. Never mount any paper goods on pages with rubber cement, animal based glues, like white glue or cellophane tapes.

Boxes – Smaller sized boxes can be used for photographs, postcards, letters, etc. Envelopes are available to aid in organizing and should be acid-free. For larger documents that need to remain flat, use larger acid-free folders of flat print boxes. Acid free tissue paper can be used to interleave between prints or papers for added protection from abrasions.

Bulky Items – dresses, quilts, stuffed toys and dolls. Larger boxes come in many shapes to accommodate a variety of bulky objects. Use acid-free tissue paper for wrapping, stuffing and support all items.

6. Professional Advice

Archivists have learned in the last 20 years as technology has speeded up, that many new preservation methods have not stood the test of time. The rule now is to use REVERSIBLE methods. That way there is never a danger of destroying a valuable item. One example: don’t ever laminate paper items. Put them in safe plastic sleeves.

Always, Always Label – name, date, event, place, etc. Archivist say a soft-leaded pencil is the most archival and the safest to use.


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