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Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum conservator gives advice for care of heirlooms

You probably know that the Museum on Big Cypress protects many pieces of art and antiques such as paintings, patchwork, doll and baskets. But many people have things like this at home too. They might have belonged to your family for a long time, and you might be concerned about their condition by this time.

Have you ever wondered how to care for your family heirlooms, antiques, and precious objects? Conservators sometimes arrive too late to protect objects from damage. But there are things that you can do to help combat damage and deterioration.

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Conservator Robin Croskery Howard cleans a large painting by Noah Billie in our conservation lab. Conservators have to get special training to do their jobs, and something like this is too hard to do at home. (Courtesy Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

Over the years, several national institutions devoted to caring for heritage objects, such as the National Park Service (NPS) and the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), have created care manuals and “cheat sheets” on this very topic. Each of these have more in-depth sections about how to care for your objects, but the basics are easy to remember as they directly correlate to the agents of object deterioration and inherent vice.

1. Keep objects out of direct light – both artificial and sunlight. Light is one of the largest agents of deterioration for objects and the damage done by light is permanent and irreparable. Store heirloom objects out of direct light, such as in a dark closet.

2. Keep objects away from air vents and be mindful of thermostat settings. Heat, including heat from lights, is problematic for many types of objects. Other fluctuations in temperature and humidity can cause expansion and contraction on both the microscopic and macroscopic level for all objects. Over time, this cycling can cause cracking, brittleness, swelling, etc. Store your objects in a cool and (relatively) dry place, such as the top shelf of a closet. For objects made of organic materials (such as wood or cloth), refer to the guides by AIC for further information.

3. Minimize the normal use of these objects to reduce the wear to the object. For example, if you are concerned about a book, limit the handling of the book, including reading and moving the book on and off shelves. Protect the spine of the book by opening the book slowly and without breaking the spine. Purchase or create your own book cradle to easily read the book while minimizing handling and damage.

4. When handling these objects, ensure that your hands and any surfaces that you will set or store the object are clean and free from dust, dirt, debris, etc., sharp objects, and adhesive residue. These have the potential to do further harm to your objects, and are easily avoided.

Do you have dolls, baskets, patchwork or jewelry at home? Artists have sold these things at fairs and festivals for over 100 years. If you have some, there are things you can do to help preserve them. (Courtesy Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

5. Store objects in appropriate archival materials. This can be a bit expensive; however, most commercially available storage materials will chemically interact with your objects in a negative way or even attract pests that may eat your objects. If you are unable to make the switch to appropriate archival materials, be mindful of the materials you choose for your objects. Look for plastics that are free of BPA, low acidity tissue paper or print-free butcher paper, and store photographs in plastic sleeves rather than the sticky backed photo albums.

6. Don’t try to mend broken or damaged heirloom objects without first consulting a conservator. Even those with the best of intentions can actually harm an object further by trying to mend the object on their own. One example of this is the use of adhesive tapes (such as cellophane or duct tape), which are inherently designed for temporary repairs for objects. These are often difficult to remove to complete more permanent repairs and leave an adhesive residue that may or may not be able to be fully removed.

As the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s conservator, I travel to the local reservations for Conservation Assistance Days. Should you have an object in need of a little TLC and aren’t sure how to proceed, please sign up for a spot at our next Conservation Assistance Day. We can further discuss strategies to help preserve your objects for future generations! Call 863-902-1113 ext. 12220 to find out where and when the next Conservation Assistance Day will be held and sign up for a spot.

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