Hello I’m your host Janelle and today I’m talking about how to care for, and preserve your family heirlooms and art collections. I don’t know about you all but during the holiday season I find a lot of people come across cherished family heirlooms being displayed or given as gifts. If you’re like my family, many people are a bit confused and stressed out about how to preserve historical objects for future generations. This is where I come in. In this episode I’ll be giving you tips and advice on how to properly store and care for your treasured objects. A quick disclosure before I go any further. This episode is in no way the only way to care for and maintain art and historical objects. And I would urge everyone listening to please make sure to speak with a specialist before making any major changes to an object such as cleaning or repairing it. You will see at the bottom of the web page for this episode links to expert resources which you should consult first. The goal of this episode is to simply make people aware of best GENERAL practices in maintaining their collection. Now just to touch on the web page associated with this episode, I want to make sure you all know that you can view all of the images and resources I discuss in this episode on my website, www.boozyarthistorian.com On my website you will find all kinds of goodies, specifically web pages dedicated to each podcast episode I produce. Just click on the link to the episode you want on the website’s homepage and you’ll find the episode’s audio, a transcript of the audio, and accompanying resources and images. Right, now that I’ve done all of the housekeeping, let’s get into the good stuff!
First things first, why on earth would we want to preserve or conserve an object? Well simply put, it allows a historical object to last longer for future generations to enjoy! It would be rather sad to have you be the last person to enjoy a painting your great grandmother bought, or a letter your great uncle received from a U.S. president. I also want to take a moment to discuss three terms you will hear when it comes to historical objects. Preservation, conservation, and restoration. To sum up quickly, preservation is the action taken to anticipate, prevent or stop the deterioration of an object. Conservation is the maintenance of an object’s current condition. And restoration is the process of returning an object to its original, or as close as possible to the original condition of the object.
Now here are some General Rules I recommend to keep your objects in good condition or from deteriorating further. These are definitely not the 10 Commandments but rather my top 10 rules that I find extremely helpful as a foundation for the preservation of objects.
1. If you need to touch an object make sure your hands are clean (aka freshly washed) and FULLY dried - this way you won’t get oils or moisture from your hands onto the object you’re handling. Unless you’re touching metal (like coins, guns, or armor) or even lacquerware, in which case always use gloves. Metals and lacquer are very susceptible to the oils on our hands and it’s best to just avoid touching them with our bare hands as much as possible.
2. No food or beverages in the same room as the objects! This will help avoid things like spills, general accidents, and attracting pests. Of course I realize you can’t keep every room in your house sterile but the no food and beverage rule is particularly important in areas where your objects are in storage.
3. Pest control. The area your object or objects are in should be pest controlled. Mice, rats, silverfish, and moths can do irreparable harm to your objects, so put down any traps or chemical sprays, things like that, making sure to get the perimeter of the room.
4. Make sure the object isn’t placed in direct sunlight or right under a fluorescent light since both can cause heat and pigment damage to objects
5. Use acid free storage boxes, folders, sleeves, and paper when storing your objects!
6. DO NOT put objects into unfinished rooms like your basement or attic. If possible try and keep the object in a place where the temperature and humidity won’t fluctuate severely
7. Keep your objects off the floor (elevate it on a little platform or something) so as to avoid accidentally kicking them
8. If you put objects on a shelf make sure not to crowd them, so as to avoid accidentally knocking an object off when moving them around
9. Please please please do not use scotch tape or masking tape on your works! It’ll leave stains and potentially take off part of the object it’s attached to when removed
10. Don’t use any household cleaning products, especially acid based products, on your objects unless a specialist advises you to do so!
So those are my 10 rules. This isn’t a rule, but I highly recommend, if you haven’t already, create a “damage report” for each object in your collection. Take notes on where there are any damages or potential weak spots in your object. This will be incredibly helpful should you ever donate your object or take it to a specialist to review.
Now let’s talk about object types you may have in your collection. The first object I want to discuss are paper based objects. Paper objects can be things like correspondences (aka letters), government documents (such as immigration papers, land deeds, military documents, etc.), and works on paper (like drawings or water colors). Paper objects can be very delicate, so I recommend using both hands when holding a paper object. Most of the time when you do touch a paper object it’s actually better to do so with clean hands rather than gloves since gloves can cause you to fumble a bit and potentially damage the piece. I cannot stress this enough: do not store paper objects with paper clips, staples, binder clips, rubber bands, or any other type of object that binds papers together, with of course the exception being the original binding of documents.
As you can see in the image on my site even a small paper clip can rust and leave markings on paper objects. Because paper is an organic material it is susceptible to light damage, so keep it out of direct sunlight and out from under hot bulbs since it will cause the object to fade, and you don’t want that. Organic material used in paper objects also makes it susceptible to mold so make sure that you have it in a room or space that doesn’t have high humidity! If you want to show off the paper object I recommend taking a picture of the original, without flash, and then have that copy printed and framed rather than framing the original. Framing the copy allows you to display it wherever you want in your home! If you don’t want to display the original, or you decide to display the copy, I recommend storing paper objects in acid free file folders in an acid free box. You can find a suggested brand in the resources section of this episode’s webpage. It is not an ad, it’s just a company that I’ve used and can speak to the quality of.
For books and scrolls the same rules apply. Take care with books when it comes to humidity since some books are bound with vellum (aka animal hides) which makes them quite delicate to humidity and temperature fluctuations. If you would like to display your book, I recommend getting a speciality book cradle for it. Basically it’s just like it sounds, it’s a lovely foam or soft material built into a v shape that will hold your book open without causing extreme strain to the spine, binding, or pages. If you want to store your books please make sure to store them vertically, never horizontally, so as to avoid cracking the spine. Should you have scrolls, similar rules apply. Don’t hang scrolls that are in a delicate state since the weight of the scroll when hanging can cause further damage. You can unroll scrolls on a flat, dry, and clean surface. Just make sure to be slow and gentle when unrolling.
Now last but not least for “paper” objects, we have photos. Photos aren’t necessarily paper but they aren’t really paintings either. Photos should be treated like paper objects, touch as little as possible, keep away from light, humidity, and temperature fluctuations. Store them in acid free folders and boxes. Again, this may seem silly but take a picture of your picture if you wish to display it. Now you’re going to have the historical object framed, please do the research and find a reputable framer who can maintain the integrity of your object while framing it, and ensure the frame doesn’t cause any damage to your object either. When in doubt about reputable framers, reach out to local historical societies or museums to see if the curatorial staff has any recommendations. I also want to note the power of digitization! Having digital records of paper objects can be an incredible tool when preserving your objects. I personally love a digital archive because it means I can view an object frequently without needing to touch it. It’s also a great way to access information without having to comb through your acid free folders and such. If you do decide to digitize your paper objects, which I highly recommend, make sure you use the appropriate amount of light (so sometimes this means no flash, or using a special copy machine). If you don’t have the budget for a fancy digital archive machine you can always use the camera on your phone! Again just don’t use flash.
The next type of objects I want to cover are paintings. Many of us either have purchased paintings or inherited paintings, or are interested in collecting paintings. And a lot of the preservation rules I discussed with paper objects also apply to paintings. Avoid direct sunlight, keep in a room where temperatures and humidity don’t have drastic changes, and handle with clean dry hands! If you have paintings you want to hang but it’s near direct sunlight you can use UV glass for the frame to help prevent light damage to the work.
If you have paintings you don’t want to display, you can store them away. I recommend avoiding stacking them. But if you must stack them make sure to stack them vertically, NOT horizontally, and put acid free board in between the paintings. By putting the board in between paintings to are protecting the frames and canvases from being damaged by screws or sharp edges in the painting that sit in front or back of it. It’s also good practice to keep paintings off of the floor, so as to avoid accidentally putting your foot through a canvas. Now you may have a painting that looks like it could use a cleaning or needs repairs.
Sometimes paintings have cracks and such in them, like we see in the Mona Lisa painting on the website here. I do NOT recommend cleaning or restoring your painting yourself. Go to a specialist for consultation before attempting to do anything to the painting or frame yourself. Specialist, conservators, and restorers have all kinds of special training and usually have a high level knowledge of chemistry. They also have all kinds of expensive tools that they use when working with a piece. One of which is an x-ray machine. Side note, this is quite an interesting part of learning about paintings. If you look at the images on my site you can see some pictures I took from the Louvre’s Leonardo exhibition in 2019 where they took x-rays of a painting. It’s a really cool process and how art historians learn more about a piece of art, since x-rays can reveal original sketches or bits of the painting that were painted over!
But I digress, so when in doubt take your painting to a specialist before trying to do anything yourself. The Met article I link in the Resources section has a great quote, “Neglect is less dangerous than inexpert treatment” (pp. 25).
Ok, moving on, let’s talk about another type of object and how to care for it, furniture! Full disclosure, I’m a sucker for antique furniture so I could go on forever about it. But I won’t since I realize everyone has places to be. If you would like to move a piece of furniture remember to never push the piece anywhere. It puts an incredible amount of stress on the object’s joints and can cause damage to the piece. If you move an object, pick it up (again with clean dry hands) and place it in the new designated location. I also want to note please be careful where you put your hands when picking up the object. Some furniture has beautiful gilt mounts or other decorations attached to them, and if you pick up the piece using those as your gripping points you could do irreparable harm to the decorations.
It’s also best practice to lock cabinet drawers or doors, or use rope even to keep drawers and doors closed should you not be able to lock them. Also, cleaning furniture is fairly straight forward. You can use a soft cloth, that doesn’t leave behind residue, to dust furniture objects. I do not recommend using a feather duster since these dusters start off nice and soft but as they get old the middle bit of the feather can become stiff and brittle and scratch the surface of your object. If your object has lots of gilt mounts or ornate carvings I recommend using a big fluffy makeup brush to dust with. Just make sure the makeup brush isn’t one you’ve been using for your face, since you want to avoid any oils or makeup residue getting into your object.
Much like furniture, ceramics and sculptures shouldn’t be pushed when moved but rather picked up with two hands. Never pick up an object by its handles or arms or decorations. Similarly to furniture this could cause damage to the decorations. Now I should specify that there are three types of ceramic materials, earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain. The difference between the three is basically the materials they’re made from and at what temperature they’re fired at in the kiln. The good news is for the most part the rules of display and care are the same for all three types. If you wish to clean a piece use a soft cloth that won’t leave behind residue. If you have any crazing, which is little cracks in the pigment and base material, I would recommend discussing with a specialist before trying to restore the piece yourself. Please do not use glue to try and fix it! Should you wish to display your lovely ceramics, just remember the rule I mentioned before. Don’t overcrowd your display shelf, otherwise you run the risk of accidentally knocking off an object. If your piece needs a stand to be displayed, make sure the stand carefully supports the object and doesn’t put any unnecessary strain on the piece.
Now, last but most certainly not least let’s talk about textiles. When I say textiles I’m referring to objects like rugs, carpets, tapestries, and clothing. Textiles are definitely tricky but not impossible. What makes textiles so tricky is the fact that they are made up of organic materials, things like cotton, wool, etc. So they’re constantly decomposing and it’s sort of a race against time to keep them preserved. Again textiles are tricky but not impossible to keep in your collection. Much like other objects I’ve covered, keep textiles away from direct sunlight so as to avoid fading or discoloring the object. Also avoid folding as much as possible, especially things like rugs and tapestries. Sharp creases cause strain on the object’s fibers and can cause damage to the piece over time. For tapestries and rugs, gently roll them if they aren’t on display. If they are on display, please be careful of walking on them or having them hung. For clothing make sure to use acid free tissue paper to stuff the garment when storing it. This allows the folds in the fabric to be less stressful on the material. Also make sure all garments are stored in acid free boxes! When storing textiles make sure to put heavy items at the bottom and stack the lightest items on top. So for example heavy winter coat materials should go at the bottom of the pile and beautiful light silk scarves should go at the top. This way you avoid accidentally crushing any delicate pieces. Should you wish to display your textiles make sure you don’t hang them in a way so as to cause unnecessary strain on the object. Much like paper scrolls. For clothing displays, please use a mannequin. Mannequins should fit the garment and not the other way around. So avoid using things like pins, or stitches to fasten the garment to the mannequin. That being said never say never, so I would recommend talking to a specialist before displaying an object you’re unsure about. Also please avoid ironing or steaming garments, or using any sort of chemical solvents or spot removers on your objects. That is a very fast way to destroy a beloved object. If you have objects like purses or objects with handles, please do not hang them, but rather display them on a shelf like you would ceramics and sculptures.
Now I know this was a lot but I’ve barely scratched the surface of object preservation, restoration, and conservation. If you would like to know more I have recommended books, pdfs, and links in the Resources section of this web page for you to look over. Also, if there’s anything I want you all to walk away with it’s that when in doubt ask a specialist! Seriously, don’t be afraid to reach out to your local historical society, local library, or even local museum. They can usually provide free advice, and even help with researching any objects you have in your collection. People working in these institutions do so because they love history, so don’t be intimidated! That being said, at the end of the day if you have an object that you’re intimidated by or just have no interest in, please do consider donating it to a local historical society or even a museum! You don’t need to be a fancy collector to donate objects to a museum, seriously.
I hope you all found this episode incredibly helpful, or if anything a great starting point in better caring and maintaining your collection. Should you have any questions, comments, or thoughts you are welcome to DM me on Instagram @boozyarthistorian. You’ll also find fun drink recipes on my Instagram account, and you can find fun art history facts on my more “sober” account, @thecuriousarthistorian. If you liked this episode or any of my work, please consider donating so I can keep all of my episodes ad free! You can find me on Buy Me a Coffee under Boozy Art Historian.
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Thanks for listening in and see you next time on The Boozy Art Historian!