Practical Museum Tips You Can Apply at Home

Or “Family Heirloom Care”  By Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director

Because I work in a museum, people often ask me how to care for family heirlooms.  There is rarely a simple answer to this question and it always depends upon the composition of the object and resources available and is based upon the current understanding of conservation science. But there is one rule that is universal and can be applied to every heirloom and artifact: never do anything that cannot easily be reversed.  This goes for everything from paper and photographs to textiles and furniture.  For example, laminating those priceless letters your great-great-grandfather wrote to your 2x-great-grandmother during the Civil War is a big no-no!  Trust me, I have a story in my family of someone misguidedly—but with the best of intentions—doing this. The letters were destroyed in the process. Even if your objects survive the lamination process, eventually they will be destroyed as the plastic cracks and the object inside breaks down with no place for the trapped gases to go inside the encapsulation.

Most of the collections care we do in museums can be practically applied to your precious objects.  Damage prevention is the key to caring for heirlooms at home just as it is in the Museum environment. Prohibit eating, drinking, and smoking around heirlooms.  Be sure to wash your hands before handling objects.  Move objects one at a time and minimize the handling of the object in order to reduce stress to the object. Make sure you have a secure place to set an artifact before picking it up and moving it.  Inspect items for stability before lifting or moving an object and be sure to pick up objects by the stable part of its construction.  Get a partner to help you move heavy objects.  Make sure objects will not fall over or roll off a table after you have set them down.  Remove jewelry, belt buckles, loose keys, or other items that might inadvertently snag or scratch an object. Store heirlooms in a climate controlled environment where the temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit (+/- 5 degrees) and 50 percent relative humidity (+/- 5%). Eliminate rapid fluctuations in temperature and humidity as well. All organic materials are susceptible to expansion and contraction from humidity fluctuations.  Be sure to inspect stored items every six months for changes in condition.

Store items in a climate controlled space where the temperature and humidity levels remain consistent.

One of the biggest complaints museums receive is the limitations put on visitors.  “Don’t touch the exhibits!” and “No flash photography!” seem like a big buzz-kill designed by stuffy curators who don’t trust visitors not to charge through their precious exhibits like bulls in a china cabinet; but, in reality, these limitations are a result of the museum’s mission to preserve the items entrusted to their care.

The essential “don’ts” of artifact care in museums are mostly common sense and can be practically applied to heirlooms in the home.  Never carry more than one object at a time nor place objects where they can be easily bumped.  Do not stack items on top of each other.  Do not push an object along the floor or a table top. Never pick up objects by handles and do not lift chairs by crest rails.  Always pick a chair up by the seat.  Never place artifacts near heating or air conditioning vents nor an unfiltered light source.  Do not store objects in the attic or a basement where the climate is uncontrolled.  Do not use grocery sacks or cardboard boxes for artifact storage.  The glue used in making these items attracts insects, especially roaches and the bottom flaps are favorite insect nesting areas.  Do not attempt to repair, refinish, or restore artifacts without guidance from a professional conservator.  Do not laminate your irreplaceable objects and do not use tape, staples, or paperclips because they can cause irreparable damage.
Both artificial light and sunlight, are extremely damaging to textiles, furnishings and paper. Light can cause fading and destroy the structure of fibers, creating splits and tears. The damage caused by light is accumulative, irreversible, and often takes place slowly without being noticed before it is too late.  This is one of the most important reasons museums rotate exhibited objects to reduce the amount of time the object is subjected to light exposure.  Sunlight and fluorescent light are the most damaging types of light because they emit high amounts of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This can be filtered from sunlight with UF-3 plexiglass or UV film placed on windows. UV filtering sleeves for fluorescent tubes are also available. Visible light also will cause fading, but is probably the most easily remedied. Just lower the light level. Keep curtains or shades drawn or use fewer artificial lights at lower wattage. Antiques should never be exposed to direct sunlight.

Many homes contain antique textiles, such as quilts, clothing, samplers and other types of needlework.  In addition to damage from use, all textiles become fragile with age and improper environmental conditions. Light, temperature, relative humidity and air pollution, including airborne dust and dirt, deteriorate textile materials. Deterioration can also be caused by insects, animals, molds and mildew, physical or mechanical stress, and improper previous repairs and treatments. Because of the nature of textiles, people are drawn to touch them; however, the dirt and oils from your hands can easily stain them. Wash your hands before handling textiles of any kind.  Also remove rings and other jewelry to prevent accidental snagging.

Ideally, all textiles should be stored flat. This is especially true of heavy and beaded clothing. If you must hang clothing, pad the hanger with polyester batting covered by washed cotton muslin. A wooden hanger provides the best support, but must be padded. Textiles should never touch unsealed wood or cardboard.  A barrier can be provided with acid-free tissue, washed cotton muslin, or old clean cotton sheets. Do not use plastic because most plastics are unstable and can release damaging fumes. The sleeves and bodices of clothing should also be padded. Large textiles such as quilts should be folded as little as possible. Pad folds with rolled acid-free tissue, muslin or sheets. Another tip for storing quilts is to roll them for storage.  My family quilts are folded once or twice, depending on the size, and then rolled and stored inside clean cotton pillow cases.

Do not attempt to wash items using mechanical methods, this includes a washing machine or dry cleaning—especially if it is fragile in any way.  Often, museum professionals use a small hand held vacuum with low suction and a shield such as nylon pantyhose over a small suction nozzle to remove dust and other types of dirt including insects and eggs. Other methods should only be attempted by a trained conservator.

Preserve your antique furniture by following a few simple rules. Use caution while cleaning. Avoid scarring the base of furnishings when vacuuming around the object and dust with a magnetic cloth. Do not use commercial oils or sprays. Apply only a light coating of paste wax once a year. Protect surfaces by padding under heavy objects. Wipe up spills immediately, and cover dining tables to repel water, food, and other harmful substances. When moving furniture, never pick it up from the arms or top. Be sure to support it below its center of gravity.  Never drag furniture across the floor—that’s a fast way to break the leg off that prized early federalist period dresser.  Be sure to seek the advice of a professional conservator before undertaking restoration or refinishing projects on your treasured heirlooms.

Unlike most other heirlooms, temperature, humidity, and light affect glass and ceramics, less. The biggest risk is from accidents caused improper handling or storage. Be cautious. While you may use heirloom dishes for serving, never use them for heating or cooking food. Sudden temperature changes can cause breakage.  Glazed ceramics and crystal may be washed carefully, using a mild detergent, in a rubber basin or a sink lined with a foam pad to avoid chipping. Handle one piece at a time, and dry with a soft cloth. Unglazed ceramics should never be washed.  Dishwashers are a risk for all valuable ceramics and glassware.  Decorative pieces, particularly those with hand-painted designs, should not be washed.  Dust them with a magnetic cloth.  Store stacked dishes using spacers such as paper towels or thin foam sheets.  If your heirloom dishes break, be careful to gather all pieces (even the smallest slivers), wrapping them individually in paper towels, and find a professional conservator for repair.

Paper and photographs are probably the most common heirloom pieces found in homes today.  Stable climate control and lighting considerations apply in the display and storage of paper and photographs just as they do for textiles and furniture. Do not permanently display valuable documents and photographs. Color photocopies or photographs work well for display.

Family papers should be stored in appropriate enclosures, such as a folder, box, or portfolio that provides protection from physical damage, light, and dust.

The method you use to assemble scrapbooks and albums can enhance the preservation of the items or cause irreversible damage. Avoid mounting with the following materials: synthetic glue (white glue), rubber cement, pressure-sensitive tapes and films, staples, or hot glue gun adhesives. These materials have poor aging qualities which can physically damage and/or discolor paper and photographs. Avoid albums with self-stick pages too. There are several safe alternatives for mounting. Valuable documents and photographs should be mounted without use of adhesives.

There are many types of photo albums available.  Albums with plastic pocket pages do not use adhesive to secure the photo but photos may slip out of the pocket opening. Paper pages require a reversible method of securing the photo to the paper such as photo corners. Do not use self stick pages because they surround the photo with adhesive which will damage the photo. Plastic pages and cover sheets made from uncoated pure polyethylene, polypropylene and polyester (also called Mylar D or Mellinex 516) are non-damaging to photographs. Polyester is crystal clear and is more rigid than polyethylene and polypropylene. None of these recommended plastics have any odor to them, while polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic does have a strong odor. Avoid the use of PVC plastics–they generate acids which can fade the photograph in time. In addition, the plastic can stick to items inside and, in some types of photographs and printed items actually cause the image to transfer to the plastic.

Look for paper pages that are made from a high-quality, acid-free, lignin-free paper made from cotton or highly purified wood pulps. Paper pages with plastic cover sheets offer more protection to the photographs–from fingerprints and accidental spills, as well as preventing the photos from sticking to each other in damp conditions.  Attach photos to paper pages using plastic or paper photo corners.

In my personal collection of family photographs are many that belonged to my grandmother’s family.  It saddens me that many of these are not identified; and now that my grandmother is gone, I have no way of identifying the people in these pictures.  Be sure to identify your photographs before the information is lost to future generations!  A safe way to caption a photograph is to write on the back with a soft lead pencil. Pencil is harmless to photographs and won’t stain or run if the photo gets damp. Modern snapshots and most photographs since 1960 are printed on resin coated (RC) paper, which cannot be clearly written on with pencil or ink.  Sometimes a soft lead pencil will still write on these photos, but it smudges easily. Felt tip film marking pens write well on RC papers because they are formulated to mark plastics. Be sure to allow the ink to dry before stacking prints together and take care not to smudge the ink before it dries.

If a photograph is handled frequently or is fragile, it should be stored alone in a folder, envelope, or plastic sleeve. Store frequently handled photos in plastic folders or sleeves so that they can be viewed without removing them from the protective environment of the enclosure. Hold a photograph by its edges, supporting it from underneath with your hand.

You may want to digitize your photographs because it offers safe and easy access to the images in your collection. Once your photographs have been scanned, you can view them and make hard copies without risking damage to the originals. Do not throw away your original film and prints after you digitize them. Digitized images are not considered a replacement for originals. Your image can be lost when the storage media deteriorates; and software and hardware technology become rapidly obsolete, in some cases making retrieval of the images difficult if not impossible.

Besides all of these measures, one of the best ways you can preserve your heirlooms is to share the stories behind what makes them special with your loved ones.  Be sure to tell your children and grandchildren who made that treasured quilt or about why that china cabinet is so important to your family. Who is in the photograph and what are they doing?  If you don’t pass along your appreciation and knowledge for your heirlooms, they will not continue to hold value for those generations that you pass them onto, and then who will care for them when you no longer can?



More information can be found at the following websites:

Conservation Online

Smithsonian Conservation Institute

National Archives


Archival Supplies:

Gaylord Brothers

University Products

The Hollinger Metal Edge Corporation

Light Impressions