Use the following guidelines to keep your historic memorabilia in the best shape possible. Here we cover general hazards to artifacts and specific techniques for preserving textiles, paper, photographs, metal, leather and wood.
Looking for a conservator? Check out our list of conservation resources below.
The basic principle of preservation of historic memorabilia is DO NO HARM. The following hazards are recognized as some of the most dangerous to historic memorabilia.
Too much light speeds deterioration of photographs, textiles and printed or handwritten paper, furniture, etc. Historic objects should be protected from excessive light levels, and especially from sunlight and florescent light, which contain high amounts of ultraviolet radiation--which is the most harmful form of light. Place furniture, antique quilts and other memorabilia out of direct sunlight and/or florescent light.
Too high or too low a temperature (or rapid temperature swings) can damage rubber, wood, metal, etc. Store or display historic memorabilia in spaces that have climate-control systems (heating and air conditioning). Do not store in sheds, attics and basements.
Humidity that is too high encourages pests and mold growth on paper, textiles and parchment, and promotes rust on metal. Humidity that is too low can cause objects to become brittle. Organic objects in particular absorb and release moisture depending on the relative humidity of their environment and need a stable humidity. Store historic memorabilia in an area that has a steady, constant humidity (45%-55%), and store or display historic materials away from heating and air conditioning vents.
Different types of historic materials attract different types of pests. Roaches and silverfish are attracted to paper and books. Moths are attracted to protein fibers such as silk and wool. Termites are attracted to wood. Conduct regular inspections of historic objects that attract pests.
5. HUMAN BEINGS
Human beings are one of the greatest threats to historic objects, not only due to surface compounds, such as oil, sweat and make-up that they carry on their skin, but also because we continue to use historic objects. These oils and other surface substances are transferred to the object during handling. Wear cotton or nylon gloves when handling historic paper, textiles, photographs, and wooden and metal objects. Many objects are damaged because people handle them in inappropriate ways, such as trying on clothing, taking items to show-and-tell at school or even using them for their original purposes. All of these uses put undue strain on the objects and put them at risk for loss or damage.
6. CHEMICAL REACTION & AIR POLLUTANTS
Certain types of materials, such as metal and marble, react to chemicals present in the air. This is a particular concern for outdoor objects such as marble statuary, iron architectural elements, etc. Chemicals such as formaldehyde and acidic gases from wooden compounds can also harm historic objects.
7. INHERENT VICE
Some objects that are composed of incompatible materials, such as wood and leather or wood and paint, have built-in deterioration risks. Conduct regular inspections of these objects for any changes in condition.
Textiles--or objects made from woven fibers -- are among the most common types of artifacts found in museums or within a family. Most families have a treasured textile such as a quilt, wedding dress or tablecloth that has been handed down through the generations. Until the 20th century, textiles were made from natural sources, such as cotton or linen plants or sheep or silkworms. In the 20th century, synthetic or laboratory textiles have been developed such as rayon, nylon and acetate. Textiles (and the dyes used to color them) are very susceptible to damage from light, acids and pests.
Most paper in the last 300 years has been made from either linen or cotton rags or wood pulp. Rag paper has a low acid content and is much more stable than pulp paper. Wood-pulp paper, the kind used for newspapers, is usually very high in acid and deteriorates rapidly.
Photographs provide us with a special form of historical documentation. They provide a graphic representation of the past not found in other media. Photographs are physically and chemically complex and require special care to preserve. Photos are especially susceptible to deterioration from chemicals left over from processing, careless handling and fading from light, especially sunlight and florescent light. Take time now to preserve your images for future generations. Each photograph is a unique window into the past that cannot be replaced.
All metal except gold is susceptible to oxidation or corrosion. Prevention of corrosion or oxidation is the primary goal in caring for metal artifacts. Most corrosion is caused by moisture, although certain chemicals can also play a role. The oils and acids that occur naturally on skin can be very damaging to metal artifacts. One of the simplest ways to help preserve your artifacts is to store them in a relatively dry environment. Typically, metal artifacts should be stored in living areas, which are much dryer then sheds garages or basements. Attics are generally too hot for most artifacts.
This is one of the most common metals and is commonly found in firearms, bayonets and swords. Steel and iron, especially those having a bright polish, are very susceptible to rust. The fine polish of a sword blade can easily be permanently marred by touching the blade with bare hands. Always handle metal artifacts with clean cotton gloves. Steel artifacts may be preserved by keeping them oiled with light oil, such as 3-in-One. Additionally, the metal parts may be protected with a coating of wax, such as SC Johnson Paste Wax. Care should be taken to coat all areas; you may wish to consult a gunsmith to help with disassembly of weapons.
Painted Metal Artifacts
Painted metal artifacts require limited special precautions. Generally the paint will protect the artifact. The painted surface should be protected from being scratched. Care should be taken during storage or display to protect these items from being scratched or chipped.
Copper, Brass, Silver
These metals are relatively stable. Their oxidation provides a stable coating that protects the metal. These metals generally should not be cleaned or polished without consulting a professional. Silver items that have been polished can be stored in Pacific Silver Cloth to reduce tarnishing.
Leather is a difficult item to preserve; care should be taken to store in medium humidity and moderate temperature. Generally speaking, storing it inside your home is suitable.
Wood is a relatively stable material to preserve. Wooden artifacts can be maintained for years, provided that some basic care and attention is given to their preservation.
To obtain a list of conservators or a pamphlet on selecting a conservator, contact:
The American Institute for Conservation
1717 K St. NW
Washington, DC 20006
Conservation and preservation information for the general public
American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works
Find a nationally recognized conservator for your objects
The Library of Congress Information on the preservation of paper materials and photographs
Northeast Document Conservation Center
Paper and photo conservation information
P.O. Box 4901
Syracuse, NY 13221-4901
517 Main Street
P.O. Box 101
Holyoke, MA 01041-0101
330 Morgan Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
The National Churchill Museum cannot appraise your artifacts. The Internal Revenue Service considers such activity by a 501c(3) a conflict of interest. The following agency is available to assist donors with appraisals. If you plan to get an appraisal for artifacts, please get them photographed, photocopied and/or appraised before sending them. The National Churchill Museum does not offer these services.
Appraisers Association of America, Inc.
386 Park Avenue South, Suite 2000, New York, NY 10016
212-889-5404 x 10
Or contact the following organization for a list of professional appraisers.
American Society of Appraisers
PO Box 17265 Washington, DC 20041