Caring for Your Collections
How can you preserve your treasures for future generations?
By learning a few basic concepts.In order for museums to fulfill our duty to our public, we are expected to maintain our collections in perpetuity. To achieve this difficult goal, we follow a regiment known as "preventive conservation." In practice, this means we attempt to eliminate or mitigate risks to the collection. Risks result from exposure to "agents of deterioration." Preservation specialists have identified ten primary agents of deterioration that all physical objects encounter.
- Physical forces
- Light and ultraviolet radiation
- Incorrect temperature levels and rates of change
- Incorrect relative humidity and rates of change
- Custodial neglect
Objects are at risk of damage every time you handle them. Fine china can be dropped, rugs can be torn, furniture can be scratched. However, by protecting your most precious pieces in enclosures (glass curio cabinets or acrylic wall cases, for example) or placing paintings behind glass, you help to avoid this agent of deterioration. The best technique, however, is to take care when handling valuable objects. Pay attention to the structural stability of a piece and be sure to provide proper support whenever you move it.
Unlike all the other agents of deterioration, fire can cause complete loss of your family treasures literally overnight. As a result, if your home is not properly protected against the risk of fire, you can negate all the benefits of otherwise good care of your collections. Having properly installed smoke detectors and appropriate fire extinguishers throughout your home is an important first step. Paying close attention to the storage of flammable chemicals, practicing good housekeeping (e.g. keeping sources of fuel to a minimum), and having your important documents and copies of photographs stored in a fire-proof safe can help you protect your home and your collections.
Flooding in your home could be the result of rising groundwater or from failed plumbing or water pipes. Due to Alaska's seismic activity, one may also experience a flood from broken water pipes following a major earthquake. Protecting your collections could be as easy as storing boxes on shelving at least 4-6" off the floor, storing sensitive items in plastic totes with lids, framing and glazing photos or paintings, or using glass-fronted cabinets.
Criminals acting as thieves or vandals can affect any of us at any time. Locking your home is the first step to protecting yourself from this agent of deterioration. Properly and completely documenting and insuring your valuables is equally important - knowing your collection intimately and being able to pass along that documentation to law enforcement agents can help in the recovery of stolen materials.
Insect pests and vermin are considered an agent of deterioration. Other forms can include mold or fungi. Strategies for avoiding this risk include proper housekeeping, careful monitoring, and physically protecting your collections. Maintaining proper humidity and ventilation can help reduce or eliminate the conditions conducive to mold or fungi growth. If you discover you have an infestation, contact a museum professional to determine your best course of action.
Pollutants are everywhere, from the soot in the smoke from your woodstove, pollen blowing in through the windows, fumes from your household cleaning products, to acids emitted from unsealed wooden shelves. Solid particles, such as dust, can damage surfaces by abrasion. Gaseous pollutants create corrosive chemical reactions, such as tarnish on silver. Acids, ozone, and sulfur dioxide can build up and break down fibers in textiles, papers, and photographs. Good housekeeping practices and the use of chemically stable storage materials, such as acid-free and lignin-free paper products, and chemically inert plastics can go a long way in protecting your objects.
Light and Ultraviolet Radiation
Visible light and ultraviolet (UV) radiation effect most materials, causing damage that ranges from fading and discoloration, to disintegration of materials. Light damage is cumulative and irreversible. To protect your objects at home, avoid placing your most precious and sensitive pieces in direct sunlight. If you use fluorescent tubes, purchase sleeves that fit over the tubes to help block the UV radiation. Use motion sensors whenever possible, to reduce the exposure time to high light levels. For especially sensitive textiles and materials that contain organic pigments, only bring them out on special occasions or for a limited time if possible.
Incorrect Temperature Levels and Rates of Change:
In general, high temperatures promote chemical reaction rates and should be avoided for sensitive objects. For every 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit), the rate of chemical reaction doubles! Keeping a relatively stable temperature is one way to avoid damage based on temperature. However, cold temperature can also be damaging to some materials. As a general rule, if the room is a comfortable temperature for you, it's likely to be safe for your collections.
Incorrect Relative Humidity and Rates of Change:
Incorrect relative humidity levels and rates of change will have an adverse effect on all collections. If too high, you run the risk of mold and fungi growth or pollutant attack. Levels that are too low can cause embrittlement of flexible organic materials, distortion and/or fracture of rigid materials, or the rupture of materials under tension (like drum heads). Excessive fluctuations will cause a variety of structural problems as different materials expand and contract at differing rates. Keeping your most sensitive materials away from bathrooms and kitchens is especially important to avoiding these daily fluctuations in relative humidity. The use of silica gel or other humectants or desiccant materials can be used to condition an enclosed area in order to provide more stability of relative humidity.
The most common form of custodial neglect is the inadvertent negligence resulting from a lack of knowledge. By educating yourself and contacting preservation professionals, you can help protect your collections from this agent of deterioration. You can protect your treasures by learning about the proper ways to clean your collections, how to balance your use of these items with your desire to preserve them for the future. If you choose to store your special items, do not neglect them - be sure to conduct routine inspections for signs of mold, mildew, pests, and other possible damage.