Five tips to preserve family keepsakes

While at my parents’ home for the holidays, I was rooting around in the garage -for something I never did find- and was horrified to find indecent storage conditions for some of my mom’s most treasured heirloom possessions. The old family photo albums, books, costume jewelry, and a few textiles were rather haphazardly stored; the result of cleaning out my grandmother’s house and rapidly storing a lifetime of hording when she passed away a few years ago.

Unfortunately, upon further investigation, I found several albums and books that were completely destroyed due to extensive water and mold damage. Indeed, I have never seen mold so huge, so highly developed, or so colorful. Needless to say, it broke my mom’s heart.

This is regrettably a familiar story even to museum collections. Even here at the Raupp (although not often since we are very diligent), I have found artifacts that have suffered from poor storage. The photo of the document below is one of those artifacts. I found it rolled up and disintegrating, with water damage and a little mold.

This document is part of a list of building materials needed to build the Schmidt house that used to be on Buffalo Grove Road on east side of the road near St. Mary’s Church.  The list was found in this house before it was demolished in the fall of 1999.  Ed Brehm who was a Buffalo Grove carpenter built the house and probably wrote the list. Its poor condition could have been avoided or slowed down with proper storage in the first place.
I find that improper storage is the number one culprit of artifact deterioration due to unsuitable environmental conditions and pest introduction.  It is also the easiest condition to maintain.

Tip 1: Areas that routinely change in temperature, especially those that are hot, humid, damp, and dark are prime breeding grounds for mold growth.  For that reason, garages, basements, and exterior walls are usually unacceptable storage areas. Stored objects should be examined and lightly dusted with a clean dry cloth a couple of times a year to ensure the storage is still appropriate.

Tip 2: Textiles are best stored in acid-free archival quality boxes and wrapped in acid-free tissue paper. Both of these are available buffered or unbuffered. If unsure of which to use, go with unbuffered paper and boxes.  Compromised fabric folds should be buffered with a wadding of paper.

To maintain the environment’s stability, tissue should be changed out when it starts to look discolored. Although acid-free boxes and tissues are a bit pricey, they are worth the investment for the most treasured of treasures. The best prices are online but The Container Store also sells archival quality boxes and heirloom textile kits.

An alternative option to archival boxes is to place objects in plastic zip top bags made with a clear polyethylene plastic. Keep these out of direct light. “Ziploc” bags are my preferred brand.

Tip 3: Mark archival boxes and bags with archival PIGMA pens. Using Sharpies and other permanent markers will eventually fade and acidify.  PIGMA pens can be purchased at most craft stores. Also, never ever use color gift tissue paper, rubber bands, paper clips or clear pressure sensitive adhesive tape on your keepsakes. These materials will cause discoloration and eventually lose their integrity.
Tip 4:  Resist the temptation to write on the backs of photographs. Writing can cause indentations and ink will eventually bleed through to the front and ruin images. If you must, write lightly in pencil near the edges.  A good alternative option is to place photos in individual sleeves with a piece of acid-free paper with penciled notation.  Sleeves will also prevent photos from sticking together.
Tip 5: Although scanning family photos is often a laborious task, it is well worth the effort since scanned images are preserved even if the originals are destroyed. Don’t forget to save them to an external source like a CD, external hard drive or USB flash drive in case of computer crashes.
These basic and easy changes will help to preserve family treasures well into the future. Be sure to consult with a conservator for any extensive repairs or questions.