Preserving Heirlooms

Fascinating questions have been popping up lately regarding the care and preservation of some interesting family heirlooms. These questions inspired us to share some ideas on how to preserve family treasures other than the seemingly ubiquitous photographs and wedding gowns. Below are a few simple suggestions of ways to care for your valued possessions quickly and inexpensively. For this article we have chosen to cover stuffed animals, art projects, musical instruments and plastics.

While plastic hasn’t been around all that long, it can be found almost everywhere, including in our continually growing landfills. Everything from key chains and identification cards to hair accessories and children’s toys are made from various plastic substances. Because of its organic origins, plastic is constantly degrading. This creates an interesting preservation challenge. The best you can hope for is to slow this process down through proper care and storage. It is important to store all plastics away from light as some are extremely light-sensitive. Most benefit from being wrapped in acid-free tissue in a cool, dry, ventilated location. Avoid cleaning plastic objects with solvents or other chemicals. You are better off leaving that ugly stain and learning to live with it than permanently damaging the item you consider a family treasure.

Because of the wide variety of materials from which they are made, musical instruments also present a challenge. Though each instrument is unique, and therefore has different optimum storage requirements, all benefit from being housed in a stable environment. Perhaps the best thing for music lovers in caring for musical instruments is the importance of using them. Even if you don’t consider yourself particularly musical, try to occasionally find time to gently play that instrument so that you can keep the moving parts lubricated and can check to see that the whole thing is in good working order. Be sure that your hands are clean and dry and that you avoid eating or drinking while playing. It is also a good idea to remove any jewelry you might be wearing. Jewelry has a nasty habit of catching on things and can scratch or otherwise deface even the toughest surfaces.

Art projects lovingly constructed by you or someone important to you are treasures definitely worth the time and effort to preserve. The size, composition and variety of materials, however, often make them quite a challenge. Oversized three-dimensional objects can be stored in clear archival-quality plastic bags inside sturdy, high-quality polyethylene plastic containers. The empty spaces surrounding each piece should be filled with shredded paper or clean cotton fabric, such as muslin. It is also a good idea to place a layer of padding on the bottom of the container before setting objects inside. Flatter art projects are best stored framed. If you do the framing yourself and aren’t sure about the quality of the backing, one option is to insert a sheet or two of archival-quality white cotton bond paper between the art and the backing. This will serve as a barrier, helping to protect the art work from potential harm. If you want to display your art projects, try to keep them from too much exposure to light, especially direct sunlight. Even artifacts can get a sunburn.

Stuffed animals are also made from a wide variety of materials. They come in an amazing assortment of shapes and sizes and are typically prone to wear and tear, especially if they have been well loved or are a bit on the ancient side. If you need to handle a stuffed object, remove any jewelry and put on some clean cotton gloves. Store stuffed animals wrapped in acid-free tissue, pre-washed muslin or polyester batting in a cool, dry and dark location.

The most important thing to consider in preserving your treasures is their environment. Try to avoid exposure to light, high humidity and extreme fluctuations in temperature. Guard against contact with contaminants and be sure to keep a look out for insects and rodents. Be careful when handling your treasures as the biggest hazard is often improper handling. Take your time and use common sense. If wearing clean cotton gloves presents a dropping hazard, make sure to wash your hands. Human skin has an abundance of natural oils and acids that can stain, corrode and dissolve almost any surface. With a little time and effort, you can provide your heirlooms with a good environment that will enhance their longevity and preserve your family history for the future.

By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2006, Morrison County Historical Society

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