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Conservation at Your Home or Work

Many of our techniques for preventive conservation are ones you can use with your own collection of treasures at home—or a collection at your school. It is helpful to understand what kind of materials you have in your collection. This will affect what kind of damage you might expect to see, and the steps you should take to protect your collection.

What do you have?

Some materials you can identify quite easily, but many will be more difficult. If you have a doll with clothing, for example, is the doll made from plastic or a ceramic? Is the clothing entirely made from cotton threads or is it a composite? Is the cloth impregnated with a chemical sizing or stiffener to make the skirt stand out?

Doll from private collection

Most objects in a collection contain more than one type of material, even an object as simple as a pencil drawing on a piece of paper. What kind of "pencil"? What kind of paper?

Because objects are made from a variety of materials, individual objects have different levels of sensitivity to their environments. Knowing what the materials are in an object will help you make decisions on how to care for them.

Some of the materials you might have include are paper; glues and adhesives; textiles (natural vs synthetic fibers); dyes and pigments; bone; photographic films; feathers; ivory; wood; gems; minerals, or stone.

What damage might you see?

Knowing that you have different kinds of materials in your collection, it becomes easier to understand that some objects are more sensitive to one type of damage than another. For example, many of the organic materials are very susceptible to pest damage. Textiles and clothing made from natural fibers as well as objects with feathers and fur or non-treated leathers are food for insects. Objects with dyes and pigments will fade easily. Objects made from woods or bone material will crack in extremely dry environments. Then there is, unfortunately, the damage that is not visible until it is too late, and the damage is catastrophic. So it is critical that you take steps to prevent as much deterioration as you can, with many techniques that are not expensive nor cumbersome.

Kachina doll from private collection

What can you do?

  1. Find the best location for your collection. Stay away from sunlight and fluorescent light. Hallways and rooms without windows are best.  Maintain moderate temperatures and relative humidity. No attics or basements, please! Don't store near the heater or fireplace either. Ensure clean air and good air circulation. Store away from sources of water; not just leaky pipes and drains, but what room is above yours? 
  2. Be a good housekeeper. Inspect your entire collection regularly. Keep the area clean from dust, pests, trash, food.
  3. Use inert materials. Acid-free or buffered papers are good. Avoid office-type folders and envelopes which are usually acidic. Use polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene pages to hold photos or scrapbook items. Use polyethylene foam as cushioning when needed. Use unbuffered papers with color photographic materials and with protein materials. Photo mounting corners are okay. 
  4. Secure your objects. Use a display cabinet with secure doors, especially if you live in earthquake zones. Use secure mounts for wall-hanging pieces. "Childproof" your tabletop and wall displays. 

For objects of particular value, consult a professional conservator to be sure you have chosen the best options for care.