Caring for Artifacts at Home

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

Artifacts aren’t just found in museums.  Most people have family treasures they want to protect and preserve.  I sometimes get inquiries about how to best care for and store these old papers, photographs, or other items of historical or sentimental significance.  So, today I thought I’d share a few very basic guidelines for artifact care.

I’ll start with the disclaimer that the specific storage conditions depend on the materials which make up each artifact.  The optimal storage conditions are not identical for every artifact, and having items made of more than one material complicates matters even more.  These are general guidelines!  If you have a particular artifact which is of great value to you, I’d strongly suggest researching more specific guidelines for the material of which it’s composed, and consulting a conservator.

Guideline #1 – Document it!  Take a photo or photos of your items, and date the photos.  This is helpful when having your items insured, or for proving that you owned them if they are stolen.  It also serves as a reference point.  You may not notice gradual fading or damage, but a photograph can help to alert you to the fact that something has changed.

With this photo, you would easily be able to see if any of these surgical needles were missing later, or if the cloth started to fade or become discolored.

If you have an item like this field medical case which is already damaged, a photo serves to document the damage. It can also still be used to check this case later to ensure that the damaged areas are not deteriorating further.

Another part of documenting your artifact includes keeping a file which details its story.  You can’t always rely on your memory of the item’s history, and future generations certainly won’t know its history if you don’t document it!

Guideline #2 – Location matters!  People tend to store their old mementos in the attic or the basement of their homes.  Those are the two worst storage spots for artifacts!  It’s best to keep artifacts in an environment with a relatively stable temperature and relative humidity.  The temperature and relative humidity in the basement and attic tend to fluctuate much more than in the living areas of a house.  Find a closet or cabinet in the main section of your home to store your artifacts.  This will keep them out of the more extreme conditions in the attic or basement, and also will help to limit their exposure to light and dust.

Guideline #3 – Use the right storage materials.  It doesn’t do much good to store your family’s treasures in the right area if you pack them in materials which will damage them.  Old cardboard boxes and newspapers seem to be commonly used for storing and packing items, but both are acidic and can damage artifacts.  Instead, purchase acid-free boxes and tissue paper for artifact storage.  Mylar sleeves or acid-free folders are good for storing photos and papers.  Photo albums can also be used for photos, as long as they are labeled for archival use.  Unbleached muslin fabric is another option for use with artifacts, especially as a dust cover for textiles and furniture.  Take the time to learn about what materials make up your storage items, and get used to looking for the term “acid-free!”

Archival cardboard boxes come in many shapes and sizes to fit a wide variety of artifacts. If you need to go with something cheaper, plastic storage boxes work as well and have the advantage of offering more protection against moisture.

Guideline #4 – Don’t try to fix it! – Probably the most important message I’d like to share here is to not attempt to do any repairs yourself, even if they seem like minor repairs.  Seriously, I considered titling this section “Don’t Use Scotch Tape!” because that is the source of many of the repair attempts I see.  Not that I have anything against cellophane tape for household uses, but I do cringe when I find that it has been used on an artifact.  I know that people mean well.  They want to repair that ripped book page, or to make sure that card with the artifact’s history is securely attached to it.  But have you ever seen an old newspaper, book, or photo which was repaired with tape years ago?

You can see the damage caused to this Confederate note by the cellophane tape. Over time the tape starts to decompose and become yellow, and the acid adhesive on the tape damages the paper. Even if the tape is removed, there will be some acidic residue left on the paper. And, just so I’m not accused of picking on Scotch tape, remember that acetate tape (“Magic tape”), masking tape, packaging tape, and even Post It notes also have adhesive which can damage artifacts.

Aim to simply stabilize any damage, not to repair it.  Be sure that anything you do to your artifact is reversible.  For instance, the bill pictured above could have been put inside a Mylar sleeve to prevent it from ripping further.  The sleeve would have supported the paper, without doing further damage to it.  For books with loose or ripped pages, consider storing the book in a box, or tying the book shut with cloth tape.

I don’t have the space here to cover all the possibilities, but I hope I’ve given you a good starting point at least.  Take good care of those artifacts so that future generations can enjoy them, and don’t be afraid to call on a professional for advice!


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

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