Conservation is the method whereby artefacts and archival materials are cleaned, stabilized, and if necessary, repaired. All artefacts undergo an initial isolation period when they are first acquired, to insure that they are insect, mould, and dirt free before they are placed into storage with the rest of the collection. Once cleaned and catalogued, items are either placed into acid-free boxes or placed directly on a shelf that has been lined with ethafoam (an inert material). Environmental controls are also in place for each storage and exhibit area to ensure that the proper temperature, relative humidity, and light levels are maintained. These three factors are the main causes of deterioration in artefacts and are the most difficult to control. All of these steps help to ensure that the physical objects that form our collection are preserved for now and for the future.
Tips for Preserving Your Family Heirlooms
Deterioration happens naturally in most objects - everything wants to return to its original state and that is why iron corrodes, silver tarnishes, and leather rots. However, there are several factors that will speed up this deterioration and cause increased damage to objects. These factors are divided into categories - environmental, natural disasters, biological agents, and human factors.
Environmental - these are factors such as temperature, relative humidity, light, and air pollution. These are the most dangerous factors because they are also the most difficult to control.
Natural Disasters - these are factors such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards, and forest fires.
Biological Agents - these generally are vertebrate pests, insects, and micro-organisms (mould). In our area, the most common agents are beetles, moths, silverfish, booklice, mice, bats, and raccoons.
Human Factors - these factors include improper handling, accidents, improper storage, theft, vandalism, and poor facilities maintenance.
By removing these factors or at least reducing them, it is possible to prolong the life of your object. Obviously natural disasters cannot be "removed" but they can be anticipated. This means that if your basement floods every spring, do not store anything of value down there. If there is a tornado warning, move any valuables that may be damaged if a window breaks, etc. There are numerous ways that a bit of prevention can save your heirlooms from damage.
For more information on preserving specific types of objects, please see the Preservation Tips.
These include everything from wills and land deeds to cards, newspaper clippings, and other materials on a paper support. Paper documents should be stored flat and with no folds, as the paper in folded areas will become brittle and tear. Remove all staples, paperclips, and elastics from the documents. If necessary, metal paperclips can be replaced with plastic ones. Paper is also susceptible to mould growth. It can be removed by brushing with a soft brush. Some mould will stain the paper and this cannot be removed. Wear gloves and a dust mask when dealing with mould on paper.
Do not wash or wet paper in order to clean it. Many types of ink are water-soluble and only trained conservators should undertake any washing. If there is dirt on your document, you can remove this by using a vinyl eraser. Do not apply too much pressure as this can tear the paper. Also do not remove pencil marks if they are a part of the original document. Do not try to repair torn documents yourself. Scotch and masking tapes should never be used on paper as they cause discolouration and damage. Contact a conservator if you have something that requires repair. Do not adhere newspaper clippings and cards in a scrapbook. The adhesive can cause damage to the objects, and changes in relative humidity can cause deformation to paper objects that are glued down. Keep newspaper clippings separate from all other paper objects. Newspaper is highly acidic and this acid can migrate to other paper items, causing embrittlement and yellowing.
Handling: Wear clean, cotton or latex gloves when handling paper objects. Always use pencil when working around any paper documents, as pen cannot be removed. It is a good idea to photocopy the original document to create a working copy if necessary. This will eliminate a lot of handling of the original and preserve it longer. Support the document while you are carrying it by placing it on a tray or a heavier piece of paper.
Storage: Paper documents should be stored in acid-free folders or envelopes. Oversize items can be rolled and tied at either end with cotton twill tape. Do not use elastics as they degrade and stick to the object. Make sure paper documents are stored at a lower relative humidity, and that no water damage can occur. Check documents periodically for signs of insect and rodent damage, and/or mould growth. Do not store any paper objects in plastic or garbage bags, as these will allow moisture and heat to be trapped and cause damage to the objects.
Modern coloured photographs are developed using organic dyes, while older, historic processes generally involved the use of silver metal and chemicals. Photographs, especially modern, colour ones, are very susceptible to damage caused by light and air pollution. These can cause photographs to fade at an uneven rate, cause yellowish stains, and in extreme cases, cause the entire image to disappear. Modern photographs are not as affected by high humidity as historic ones are. High humidity will cause tarnishing and corrosion in photographs that contain silver. Do not write on or attach labels, stickers, etc. to photographs. These will eventually cause damage. Do not roll large or oversize photographs. This can cause permanent damage as the underlying support is not as flexible as paper. Do not try to clean or repair photographs. Trying to remove corrosion or tarnish from historic photographs will cause increased damage to the image. Do not use tapes, glue, or other products to repair rips or tears. Contact a professional conservator.
Handling: Wear clean, cotton gloves when handling photographic materials, as the acids and oils in your hands will cause damage. When handling large photographs or those on glass supports, make sure they are adequately supported.
Storage: Modern photographs of a standard size should be housed in photo albums with Mylar or polyethylene pockets. Do not use photo albums with self-adhesive pages, as photographs will become permanently adhered. Negatives and slides should also be stored in Mylar or polyethylene pockets designed for their size. For oversize or oddly shaped photos and those on glass supports, store in acid-free boxes or envelopes/folders. If the photograph is on a glass support, insure that it is adequately padded against breakage by using acid-free tissue. Photographs are best stored in the dark, at a cool temperature.
Stamps need to be kept in low relative humidity because of the adhesive on the back of them. In a high RH, the adhesive will be moistened and it will adhere to the underlying support. Stamps should not be hinged onto a support, as this will affect the adhesive and ultimately, the value of the stamp. Do not attempt to clean stamps yourself. Contact a professional conservator or a stamp dealer.
Handling: Always wear clean, cotton gloves when handling stamps.
Storage: Store stamps in special collector’s albums with Mylar or polyethylene pockets.
Books require a stable environment as they are composite objects (made from more than one material). Paper, leather, cloth, and even metal often compose a book. Low humidity will cause damage to leather bindings, and high humidity will cause mould growth. Books should not be photocopied, as this will cause damage to the spine. Books with broken spines or loose covers should be wrapped in acid-free paper or tissue and tied with cotton twill tape. Contact a professional conservator for treatment. To remove a book from the shelf, grasp the book firmly around the centre of the spine and ease it off the shelf. Do not pull on the head cap, as this will damage the spine.
Do not place books in direct sunlight, as this will cause fading of the colours.
Do not place newspaper clippings, leaves, or other objects between the pages of books. This will cause deformation of the spine and can cause stains and other damage to the pages.
Handling: Books should be handled with clean hands or with clean, cotton gloves. Large volumes should be supported with both hands. Do not stack books in order to carry them - if possible, place them on a cart to move from area to area.
Storage: Books in good condition can be stored upright on shelves wider than the books. Bookends can be used on the condition that they are heavy enough to support the books, and that they are of a design as not to cause damage. Books should be arranged by size, as the taller volumes will offer support the shorter ones. Adequate space for air circulation and to be able to remove volumes safely should be taken into consideration. Oversize, heavy, or damaged books should be stored flat, and stacking should be kept to a minimum. Remove all volumes on top before moving the ones underneath. Pick up the whole book - do not push or pull the book across a surface, as this will abrade the surface.
Do not touch painting and frame surfaces with any cleaning solutions, cleaning cloths, sponges, feather dusters, etc. To remove dust from the surface of the painting, use a sable brush. A paintings conservator should do any other cleaning.
Do not hang paintings on exterior walls, in direct sunlight, or above fireplaces.
Do not hang paintings on freshly painted or plastered walls.
Do not attach sticker or labels, or write on the back of paintings.
Do not place paintings under a spotlight. It will cause colours to fade, and the heat given off by the light will affect the paint layers.
Handling: Wear clean, cotton gloves when handling art works. To move a painting, place one hand along the bottom of the frame and one along the side. This offers support to both dimensions. If the painting is large, enlist the aid of a second person to help you move it. Always plan your route.
Storage: Paintings are best stored hung on a wall. This allows adequate air circulation and ventilation for the painting. If a painting must be placed in storage, wrap in acid-free tissue or unbleached, cotton muslin, and store upright against a wall so that the majority of the painting is supported.
Furniture is susceptible to light damage, as the wood and upholstery will fade - do not place in direct sunlight or rotate furniture every season so that one particular piece is not always in direct light. Avoid placement near heaters, furnace ducts, air conditioners, etc. Insects and rodents will attack wood - if in storage check periodically to make sure that no damage has occurred. DO NOT have old wooden pieces refinished. About half of their value (historic and monetary) is in having the original stain and finish. Beware of water from plants and beverages as it can do damage to finishes if not wiped up immediately. Also, alcohol can remove some finishes and underlying stains. If this happens, contact a furniture conservator, and do not try to repair the finish yourself. Do not use commercial furniture polishes or waxes, as they create a build up layer that attracts dust and dirt. This layer will be unattractive and can be very difficult to remove. To clean furniture, use a lint-free, soft cloth to wipe away dust. First make sure that there are no loose pieces of veneer, or other areas on which the cloth can get caught. Another option is to use a soft brush and brush the dust towards a vacuum cleaner nozzle. This method can also be used on the upholstery.
Handling: You should handle furniture with clean, bare hands or wearing clean, cotton gloves. Do not pick pieces up by the arms, legs, or back, as these are the areas that usually break apart. Pick up small pieces by the seat or base. If the piece is large, have another person help you and have a clear path in which to move. Dollies can be used if you pad them with towels or blankets first, in order to protect the finish and the surface of the object. Do not drag or push objects - pick them up off the ground to move them. Remove any shelves or drawers prior to moving, in order to make the piece lighter and to avoid damage. Replace the shelves and drawers once you are finished moving the object.
Storage: Furniture should be stored in a clean environment, away from moisture. The pieces can be covered with cotton drop cloths, and they should be checked periodically for signs of insect or rodent damage. If a table leg is missing, store it upside down, resting on the tabletop. If possible, furniture should not be stacked on top of other pieces. There should also be enough room around a certain piece that it can be easily removed from storage if necessary.
Most silver bought today is sterling silver, which means the object is 92.5% pure silver and 7.5% copper alloy. Most common types of silver objects are flatware, jewelry, and small decorative items such as candlesticks. Silver will tarnish naturally but air pollutants and high relative humidity will speed it up. The worst air pollutants for silver are sulphur based, and can be found in velvet and felt, which are often used as linings for jewelry and flatware cases. It is best to remove these linings if possible. If not, place plastic wrap or polyethylene bags between the objects and the lining to act as a barrier layer.
It is best not to polish silver items as the tarnish acts as protective layer between the underlying metal and the environment. Each time you polish, you remove a layer of the silver, and if the object is electroplated, you can eventually remove all the silver. Silver will also scratch very easily and that is why few commercial polishes are recommended - they are too abrasive. If you must polish the silver, Twinkle, Goddard's products, or Hagerty's products are best. Also if possible, place the polished pieces in polyethylene bags. The bags act as protection against the environment, and the pieces will tarnish much slower when placed in the bags. Silver jewelry should be polished with a jeweller's cloth and stored individually so that they cannot abrade each other.
Handling: Always wear clean cotton gloves when handling silver. The acid in your skin will etch into the metal in less than one month, creating permanent damage. Latex or rubber gloves will react with the silver and cause increased tarnishing. Always support the object with two hands, and do not carry more than one object at a time.
Storage: The recommendations are the same for glass and ceramics. If placing silver in boxes, place in polyethylene bags first and then wrap with white, terry cloth towelling.
Copper, Brass and Bronze
Brass is a copper and zinc alloy. Bronze is a copper and tin alloy. You cannot really tell the three apart by appearance, scientific analysis is needed to be positive. Copper will corrode faster than either brass or bronze. Corrosion often appears as bright blue or green areas on the object. Do not try to remove these yourself - contact a professional conservator. If possible, do not polish copper as the tarnish acts as a protective layer between the underlying metal and the environment. Also, copper is often attached to leather harnesses or other materials. The residue from the polish will damage any leather or textile with which it comes into contact. If you must polish, Twinkle, Goddard's products and Hagerty's products are best. Do not use silver or other types of metal polish on copper.
Copper, brass, and bronze are not as susceptible to air pollutants as silver.
Handling: Always wear clean gloves - cotton or latex are fine in this case. Always support the object with two hands, and do not carry more than one item at a time.
Storage: If placing copper, brass or bronze in boxes, place in polyethylene bags first and then wrap with white, terry cloth towel.
Gold will not corrode but if it has a silver or copper alloy with it, those metals will.
Do not use any polishes except for a jeweller's cloth on gold as it is very soft and can be easily scratched and misshapen.
Handling: Wear clean gloves - either cotton or latex. Follow same procedures as for copper, brass, and bronze.
Storage: Same guidelines as for copper, brass, and bronze.
Glass and ceramics are relatively stable materials, as they are not affected by many of the environmental factors that can contribute to deterioration. It is generally safe to handle glass and ceramics with your clean, bare hands. The acids in your skin will not affect most glazes, and you will have a better grip with bare hands than with gloves. These items should not be used if they are at all valuable. Grease and acids from food will stain ceramics and react with the glazes. As well, there is more danger of the object being damaged if it is in use. If you must use the object in question, do not place them in dishwashers, microwaves, etc. To clean, use a lint-free, soft cloth to wipe away dust, or use warm water with no detergents, and dry completely before putting away. Do not try to mend broken pieces yourself. Keep all the pieces together and contact a professional conservator. Certain adhesives and glues are not compatible with certain types of ceramics and glass, and they can cause increased damage.
Handling: Always use two hands to carry objects. Do not carry more than one object at a time. Do not pick up objects by handles or other small parts, as they are the first pieces to break off. Hold by the body of the object and use your other hand to support the base.
Storage: Ceramics can be stored anywhere within reason. Make sure the object is secure and cannot be easily knocked over. Do not stack teacups and other glasses. Objects such as plates and bowls may be stacked but within a reasonable height. If storing in boxes, use white terry cloth towels to wrap the objects and act as padding. Wrap lids and bases separately to avoid scratching and abrasion. It is better to use plastic tubs with lids rather than cardboard boxes for storage. Water and pests cannot get into these plastic containers as easily, where they can readily enter cardboard boxes.
Coins are created from a variety of metals and metal alloys, but they are rarely treated the same as objects made from that metal. Never clean coins yourself. Contact a professional conservator, or a dealer in rare coins. Cleaning may abrade away small details, thereby reducing the value of the coin.
Handling: Coins should always be handled with cotton gloves and held by the edges.
Storage: Coins should be stored in special collector’s albums that have Mylar envelopes. Be careful that the envelopes are made of Mylar or polyethylene plastic. The chlorides in PVC plastic will react with any type of metal and cause damage.