I don’t know about you all but during the holiday season I find a lot of people come across cherished family heirlooms being displayed or given as gifts. If you’re like my family, many people are a bit confused and stressed out about how to preserve historical objects for future generations. This is where I come in. In this mini lesson I’ll be giving you tips and advice on how to properly store and care for your treasured objects.
A quick disclosure before I go any further. The below rules are in no way the only way to care for and maintain art and historical objects. And I would urge everyone listening to please make sure to speak with a specialist before making any major changes to an object such as cleaning or repairing it. You will see at the bottom of the page links to expert resources which you should consult first. The goal of this mini lesson is to simply make people aware of best GENERAL practices in maintaining their collection.
First things first, why on earth would we want to preserve or conserve an object? Well simply put, it allows a historical object to last longer for future generations to enjoy! It would be rather sad to have you be the last person to enjoy a painting your great grandmother bought, or a letter your great uncle received from a U.S. president. I also want to take a moment to discuss three terms you will hear when it comes to historical objects. Preservation, conservation, and restoration.
To sum up quickly, preservation is the action taken to anticipate, prevent or stop the deterioration of an object. Conservation is the maintenance of an object’s current condition. And restoration is the process of returning an object to its original, or as close as possible to the original condition of the object.
Now here are some General Rules I recommend to keep your objects in good condition or from deteriorating further. These are definitely not the 10 Commandments but rather my top 10 rules that I find extremely helpful as a foundation for the preservation and of objects.
1. If you need to touch an object make sure your hands are clean (aka freshly washed) and FULLY dried - this way you won’t get oils or moisture from your hands onto the object you’re handling. Unless you’re touching metal (like coins, guns, or armor) or even lacquerware, in which case always use gloves. Metals and lacquer are very susceptible to the oils on our hands and it’s best to just avoid touching them with our bare hands as much as possible.
2. No food or beverages in the same room as the objects! This will help avoid things like spills, general accidents, and attracting pests. Of course I realize you can’t keep every room in your house sterile but the no food and beverage rule is particularly important in areas where your objects are in storage.
3. Pest control. The area your object or objects are in should be pest controlled. Mice, rats, silverfish, and moths can do irreparable harm to your objects, so put down any traps or chemical sprays, things like that, making sure to get the perimeter of the room.
4. Make sure the object isn’t placed in direct sunlight or right under a fluorescent light since both can cause heat and pigment damage to objects
5. Use acid free storage boxes, folders, sleeves, and paper when storing your objects!
6. DO NOT put objects into unfinished rooms like your basement or attic. If possible try and keep the object in a place where the temperature and humidity won’t fluctuate severely
7. Keep your objects off the floor (elevate it on a little platform or something) so as to avoid accidentally kicking them
8. If you put objects on a shelf make sure not to crowd them, so as to avoid accidentally knocking an object off when moving them around
9. Please please please do not use scotch tape or masking tape on your works! It’ll leave stains and potentially take off part of the object it’s attached to when removed
10. Don’t use any household cleaning products, especially acid based products, on your objects unless a specialist advises you to do so!
This isn’t a rule, but I highly recommend, if you haven’t already, create a “damage report” for each object in your collection. Take notes on where there are any damages or potential weak spots in your object. This will be incredibly helpful should you ever donate your object or take it to a specialist to review.
If you would like to know more I have recommended books, pdfs, and links below. You can also head over to my podcast website The Boozy Art Historian and listen to my episode on caring for family heirlooms and your collection.
The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection [Link]
Winterthur Conservation [Link]
“The Care and Handling of Art Objects: Practices in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” [Link]
National Archive - “How to Preserve Family Archives” [Link]
Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute - Resources [Link]
Gaylord Archival [Link]
Header Image: Modern Rome, Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1757, The Metropolitan Museum of Art [Link]