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Caring for Family Heirlooms

Like the family heirlooms you have at home, museums are responsible for protecting a community’s cultural heritage for future generations. Caring for these unique and meaningful objects until they can be shared with children and grandchildren is not difficult, and we’d like to share some simple things you can do to ensure your heirlooms are protected.

Museums care for and preserve many different types of artifacts.  One area critical to long term preservation is how they are stored. Proper artifact storage is not as hard as it seems and is one of the easiest ways to prevent physical and environmental damage.

Here are a few simple guidelines we use that will help you keep your family heirlooms safe and sound.

1.  If you are storing clothing or any type of textiles (quilts, table cloths, etc.), use acid free white tissue to wrap and pack them. It’s important to use white since the colour of some tissue can actually rub off on the textiles.

2.  When packing textiles in a box or drawer, it is better to roll them loosely rather than fold them. Folding creates creases which will eventually cause the fibers in the fabric to fray and break resulting in holes. Also, stuffing small rolls (aka ‘sausages’) of tissue into areas being folded create a gentle roll instead of a hard crease.

packing fabric

3.  Limit the amount of direct exposure to light. Objects such as papers, photographs, textiles, and drawings can fade or yellow over time from constant exposure to light. Light can also accelerate an existing problem (i.e. if mould is present) since high levels of light can cause fluctuations in temperature.

4.  Don’t store metal objects in PVC type plastics. PVC plastics can cause a chemical imbalance with metal that creates an acidic reaction. Left untreated, this can create irreversible damage. Mylar envelopes are one of the many proper ways to store your metals such as coins in.

5.  Avoid attics and basements! They may seem like a good place to store family heirlooms because of the space available, but can actually be the worst places to store artifacts. Attics and basements are prone to temperature fluctuations (high and low) and when combined with high humidity, it accelerates deterioration and increases the potential for problems with mould. If possible, try storing objects in an area of your home where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate as much. Also, keeping heirlooms away from exterior windows and doors can do wonders for preservation

If you are interested in learning more about how to care from your family heirlooms, check out the Canadian Conservation Institute’s CCI Notes to learn more about the care, handling, and storage of a variety of cultural objects.

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