Tips for Preserving Your Family Treasures

It is our sincere hope that you will take time to collect and preserve the treasures in your homes and communities.  Now is the time to capture this history, before it disappears.

Lonnie G. Bunch III Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Family photo preservation tips

Part of our mission at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is to work with individuals, organizations, regional museums, and historical societies to identify treasures and reclaim them for future generations to enjoy.  In 2008, the museum launched Save Our African American Treasures, A National Collections Initiative, a traveling program that helps participants from around the country identify and preserve items in their personal collections.

As part of the program, NMAAHC publishes information for attendees and other members of the public interested in learning how to take care of their personal collections. The first thing to know about caring for your treasures is this: Do no harm.

Here are the five basics of preservation

  • Avoid bright or direct light. Light is Enemy Number 1 for sensitive materials. Color photographs are especially vulnerable to fading when they are hit by light of any type. Do not store films, prints, or fabrics in direct sunlight. Avoid exterior, south-facing walls or other locations that receive direct sunlight.
  • Maintain a consistent temperature. If you choose the right setting for your storage, you have won half the battle in preserving your treasure. Do not store objects in attics, where the temperature varies by season and where, in the summer, it is far too hot and humid. Also avoid placing treasures near heaters, radiators, chimneys, vents, electrical sources, and open windows.
  • Keep objects clean and clean them with care. Dust can actually scratch delicate surfaces such as photographs and textiles. When dusting, use a soft, lint-free cloth, and avoid rubbing. Always clean gently and avoid harsh commercial cleansers or cleaning solvents.
  • Guard against insects and pests. Keep the area around your treasures clean and food-free. If you are concerned about bugs, consider using pest traps to alert you to their presence.
  • Avoid excess moisture. Do not store your treasures in areas that may experience water damage, such as near plumbing pipes, sprinklers, open windows, vents, or sinks. Avoid storing items in the basement – or anywhere in your house where humidity and mold are common and where flooding might occur.

Books

  • Don't pull a book out by its spine as this can cause damage. Instead pull a book out by pressing on either side or by pushing out from behind 
  • Store books standing up and not on their sides 
  • Be careful when opening or photocopying a book. Support the spine and try to open only as wide as necessary 
  • Do not use staples, paperclips, tape or glue 
  • Keep away from light 
  • Avoid extreme fluctuations in heat and humidity 
  • Keep storage areas clean to avoid attracting insects and rodents 

Preserving family heirlooms - wedding dress

Clothing and Textiles

  • Take it (wedding dress, family quilt, etc.) off the hanger 
  • Protect it from light by placing it in an acid-free box 
  • Inside the box, it is important to use acid-free tissue, as well. Place rolls of tissue between the folds of the textile for support 
  • Do not store textiles in an attic or basement. Instead store in a cool, dry area that is not susceptible to extremes in temperature and humidity and that is free from pests and dust 
  • Handle with clean hands 
  • Before handling remove bracelets, necklaces, rings, tags, or anything that could catch or cling to a textile or its surface   

Furniture

  • Avoid extreme fluctuations in heat and humidity 
  • When possible, protect from light, such as direct sunlight from a window 
  • Protect from liquids and heat (on tables, use coasters and insulated trivets) 
  • Use care when moving furniture. Maintain a firm grip and do not wear gloves 
  • Hold and carry the piece at its strongest part—hold a chair by the seat rail (not its back or by the hand rail) and hold a table by its apron (not its top or legs) 
  • Use a soft damp cloth to remove dust instead of furniture polish and feather dusters 

Preserving family paper documents

Paper Documents

  • Avoid extreme fluctuations in heat and humidity 
  • Keep liquids away to prevent spills and stains 
  • Keep hands clean to avoid stains 
  • Do not use staples, paperclips, tape or glue 
  • Protect it from light by placing it in acid free folders and boxes 
  • Do not store in wooden drawers or cardboard boxes. Store documents flat instead of rolled or folded 
  • Make sure documents are supported from underneath when handling 
  • Make a copy to use for research or display and keep the original in proper storage 
  • Avoid laminating documents or any other process that is not easily reversible 
  • Separate acidic papers such as newspaper from other documents 
  • Keep storage areas clean to avoid attracting insects and rodents 

Photographs

  • Protect photos from light by placing them in acid free folders, sleeves and boxes 
  • Keep liquids away to prevent spills and stains 
  • Keep hands clean to avoid stains 
  • Do not use staples, paperclips, tape or glue 
  • Protect it from light by placing it in acid free folders and boxes 
  • Do not store in wooden drawers or cardboard boxes. Store documents flat instead of rolled or folded 
  • Make a copy to use for research or display and keep the original in proper storage 
  • Keep storage areas clean to avoid attracting insects and rodents 
  • Be aware that many commercially available photo albums contain acidic paper, harmful plastics and adhesives. Avoid laminated photo albums 
  • Avoid buffered tissue paper and plastic sleeves that contain polyvinylchloride (PVC)
     

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