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Caring for Your Treasures
by Elisabeth Joy

  Fanning mill, ca 1912.  

Enlarge image.Fanning mill, ca 1912.


Whether you are an avid collector, patiently building your collection, or the keeper of family heirlooms, you have treasures that you wish to preserve. The best way to preserve and enjoy these objects is to prevent damage from occurring in the first place. This article provides some basic notions and tips on how to do so.

  Eaton's Fall Winter 1912-13, cover.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's (Winnipeg) Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1912-13.


People keep or collect all sorts of objects for sentimental reasons, for personal interest, or for profit. From clothing to agricultural machinery, the list of what people collect is as varied as the selection of merchandise offered in mail-order catalogues. Indeed, catalogues often serve as references when researching objects from the 20th century.

  Wedding dress, 1954.  

Enlarge image.Wedding dress, 1954.


Advice on how to care for collections is preferably tailored to suit the materials and construction of the objects in your collection. For example, textile collectors must be aware that light will fade colours, which is not a concern for ceramic collectors. For specific information, see the Resources at the end of this text.


  Photo of two women found in family 

Enlarge image.This photograph of two women skiers found in a family album provides no written information to tell us who they were, or when or where the photo was taken.


Far too often, personal collections, family heirlooms, memorabilia, and photographs are discarded because the stories they represent have been forgotten or their value is not known.

The first step in preserving your treasures is to document them. Start by creating an inventory of the objects you collect or care for. For each object, record the following information: name of the object, a description, who created it (artist, artisan, or author's name), its provenance (where it came from), and any relevant story associated with it.

Tip #1

  Acme washing machine, Eaton's Spring 
Summer 1926, p. 367.  

Enlarge image.Acme washing machine, Eaton's Spring/Summer Catalogue 1926, p. 367.

  • A picture is worth a thousand words so add a photograph to the description of each object. If you are using paper records, don't forget to write the name of the object and the date the image was taken on the photo. If you are saving your images digitally, use the name and date to identify the file.

Record the dimensions of the object and its condition. This will enable you to track any changes that may occur, such as fading in pictures or textiles, cracks in furniture that grow longer or larger, or rusting in iron objects. Any of these changes are signs of deterioration and usually indicate there is a problem with storage or display conditions.

Storage and Display Conditions

  Scales and beam with marking  

Enlarge image.Jeweller's scale.


Good storage and display conditions contribute to the preservation of your treasures. These conditions include temperature, humidity, light, and air pollution.

  Book of sample wallpapers, Eaton's 
Wallpapers for 1941  

Enlarge image.Sample book of Eaton's wallpapers, 1941.


Temperature extremes are bad for collections. High temperatures speed up the rate of chemical reactions. Chemical reactions cause plastics to harden and shrink or wood-pulp paper to yellow and become brittle.

Tarnish and corrosion on metal surfaces are also the result of chemical reactions. Heat will soften polymers such as paints, glues, waxes, and resins, and surfaces will become sticky and attract dust.

Tip #2

  • Avoid placing objects on or next to heating vents, radiators, electric heaters, or fireplaces.
  • Avoid light sources that will heat objects.

Cold temperatures, while slowing down chemical reactions, will cause polymers to become brittle and more prone to breaking.

Tip #3

  • Never allow the temperature to drop below 10°C for acrylic paintings or 2°C for oil paintings.
  • Avoid moving paintings or wax objects in the winter.
Humid and Dry Environments

An environment above 60 per cent relative humidity can promote mould growth if the air is stagnant, or may cause objects made from organic materials to swell and distort. Metals will corrode, staining and damaging adjacent materials.

Examples of organic materials
From plants: wood, basketry, bark, paper, cotton, linen.
From animals: bone, ivory, feathers, wool, silk, fur, leather.

Examples of inorganic materials
Metals, stones, glass, ceramics.

Tip #4

  • Don't use metal coat hangers or paper clips as they are likely to rust over time.

Dry air below 30 per cent relative humidity causes organic materials to shrink and crack. Cyclical low and high humidity will weaken objects, eventually leading to permanent damage such as warping or lifting of veneers. During winter, heating usually lowers the relative humidity in the house. Unfortunately, if the relative humidity is too low, objects may be damaged. Some heating systems monitor relative humidity. Low cost mechanical hygrometers available at hardware stores will perform the same function.

The Relationship between Humidity and Temperature
Relative humidity is the ratio of the amount of moisture in the air relative to the maximum amount of moisture the air can hold at a given temperature. The higher the temperature, the more water can be held in the air, the lower the relative humidity. If the temperature drops, so does the maximum amount of moisture the air can hold, and relative humidity increases. This is what causes condensation on your windows: Warm air is cooled near the windows and can no longer hold all the moisture; water droplets are deposited on the windows.

  Deteriorating objects in garage  

Enlarge image.These objects show the deteriorating effects of being stored in the rafters of an unheated garage.


Tip #5

  • Avoid storing your treasures in attics, basement or unheated garages as these areas are often subject to extremes in temperature and humidity.

If the only storage space available for your collection is in a basement, install a dehumidifier to control the relative humidity, but don't forget to empty the water! Store objects off the ground on shelves, in the event water spills or the sewers back up.

Direct contact with water will damage most types of objects. For example, water-soluble colours in textiles and paper will bleed, and wet book pages or photographs will stick together.

Tip #6

  Empire Coffee, metal can.  

Enlarge image.If a metal object begins to show signs of corrosion or rust, it means that it is stored in a location that is too humid and it should be moved to a drier place.

  Silk tunic faded by light  

Enlarge image.Close-up of a silk garment faded by light. The tunic was folded; the parts that were less exposed to light did not fade as much as those that were exposed.


To prevent water damage:

  • Inspect plumbing, roof, windows, and doors for leaks once a year.
  • Don't store objects next to water pipes or the hot water tank.
  • Don't start the dishwasher or the washing machine if no one will be at home .

In case of water leaks, move objects and dry the area as soon as possible. To prevent mould growth, use fans to keep the air circulating until everything is dry. Different types of materials will require different treatments if wet. Metal objects should be dried quickly, for example. Archival materials and textiles should be frozen before they are dried out and expert advice on how to treat them is obtained. See Resources.


Without light, you will not be able to enjoy your collection. Ironically, most objects are made of materials that may be altered by prolonged exposure to light. Materials range from organic materials like wood and feathers to inorganic materials like gems and minerals (amethyst can fade; amber darkens).

The extent of damage will depend on the intensity, duration of exposure, and light source. Watercolours and many dyes are extremely sensitive to light and will fade rapidly if displayed in direct sunlight.

Tip #7

To prevent or retard fading:

  • Avoid displaying objects in direct sunlight or under fluorescent lights.
  • Apply filters to windows and fluorescent lights to block ultraviolet rays.
  • Rotate light sensitive pieces. Display a work of art for six months and then replace it with one in storage. Return the other work to storage until its turn comes up again.

Light generates heat. Think of vinyl records or videotapes melting in the summer sun. Incandescent light bulbs and spot or halogen lights also heat the areas around them. A spotlight could melt a wax doll's face if placed too close!

Air Pollution

Pollutants are present in the air. Some can be detected by smell but most cannot be seen. In a freshly painted room, organic acids and formaldehydes are released as the paint dries. Chemical reactions between these pollutants and objects in the room are often not immediately noticeable, but paint vapours may tarnish and corrode metals, or may deteriorate stone, shells, paper, and photographs.

Other sources of organic acid vapours are woods, adhesives, and varnishes. Some woods are more acidic than others: Lead objects, such as toy soldiers, may corrode if stored or displayed in an oak cabinet.

Tip #8

  • Wait a month before placing collections in a newly painted cabinet.
  • Use acrylic paints; avoid alkyd or oil based paints.

Sulfur based gases may also tarnish metals (especially silver), darken lead based pigments, and deteriorate organic materials. Some sources of sulfur based gases include fossil fuels, wool, adhesives, and natural rubber.

Tip #9

  • To prevent silver from tarnishing, place a piece of chalk in your jewellery box, and replace it every six months.
  • Store silver objects in zip-lock bags or in anti-tarnish cloths if they are not being used or displayed.

Pollutants also include particles like dust and mould. Dust particles can be abrasive and may scratch fragile surfaces. Dust and mould can stain objects and attract insects. Insect damage can be devastating. Silverfish, for example, will feast on archival collections; moths will eat holes through woollen garments.

Tip #10

  • Clean rooms regularly, especially in low-volume traffic areas used for storage.

  • Make sure new acquisitions are insect and mould free.
  • Clean or replace furnace air filters using the manufacturer's recommendations.
  • Don't hang important artwork above a working fireplace.

Theft and Fire

Theft and fire are major threats to your collection. Here are a few tips to help you protect your collection.


Thieves are on the look out for objects of value. The best defense is to be discreet about the valuable items you own.

Tip #11


Enlarge image.Jewellery.

  • Don't brag about your valuables or collection.
  • Don't give out your home address to strangers who show an interest in your collection.
  • Don't place valuable items near windows where they can be easily seen from the street.

Tip #12

  • Make sure the house looks occupied: Use timers to turn lights on and off in the evenings and have someone remove newspapers and mail if you are away for a few days.
  • Install a security system, motion detectors, high security locks, and anti-theft bars on basement windows.
  Electric toaster, ca 1920.  

Enlarge image.Fires are commonly started by faulty electrical appliances. As appliances age, their wires dry out and become brittle, increasing the risk of fire. Eaton Beauty electric toaster, model in use between 1909 and 1926.

  Red Banner Motor Oil tin.  

Enlarge image.Make sure there are no flammable liquids left in old containers. Oil tin, Red Banner Motor Oil, sold by Eaton's.


While there is always the hope that a stolen object may be recovered, the same cannot be said about objects damaged or destroyed by fire. Even if the object is only covered in soot or partially burned, the cost of restoring it may be prohibitive. The best protection is prevention!

Tip #13

  • Know the voltage and current that your appliances are designed for.
  • Inspect, and change if necessary, wiring on lamps and appliances in use.
  • Don't run extension cords under carpets or hang them on nails.

Some materials, like cellulose nitrate found in pre-1940 films or oil soaked rags, can spontaneously ignite. Industrial or scientific objects sometimes contain gasoline or oil, both combustible materials.

Tip #14

  • Don't smoke or light matches near combustible materials.
  • Don't throw crumpled oil or lanolin soaked rags in the garbage; hang them to dry or wash them immediately.
  • If you possess cellulose nitrate films, contact your local museum or archives to find out how they can be copied and disposed of.
  • Make sure your house is equipped with smoke detectors in working order.

Handling: The Accidental Danger

Accidents, such as dropping objects, are never planned, but certain precautions can prevent them. A key factor in the preservation of objects is how they are handled and used. Surfaces of objects may be stained or smudged by dirty fingers or scratched by jewellery or watches.

  Cotton gloves.  

Enlarge image.Cotton gloves.

  Broken teapot handle.  

Enlarge image.Some objects are more fragile than they appear or their parts may have weakened with time. An example is this coffeepot handle, which can no longer be used for its original purpose.

  Acid free cardboard box small 

Enlarge image.Use containers or boxes made of acid-free cardboard like this one or polyethylene plastic to protect small objects in storage and during transportation.


Tip #15

  • Always make sure your hands are clean before you touch your treasures.
  • Wear cotton gloves to avoid finger marks on metal objects and photographs. Gloves can be purchased at photo supply stores.

Tip #16

  • Before moving an object, make sure passages are clear, doors are open, and there is a safe place to set it down.
  • Handle one object at a time, using both hands. Don't displace heavy objects alone; you may hurt yourself and the object!
  • Lift the object by its base or main body of the object. Protruding handles or other elements should not be used for lifting as they may break off. Never drag an object.

Tip #17

  • To handle or move a fragile object safely, place it on a rigid surface that is slightly larger than the object so that it is supported evenly. For example, works of art on paper can be supported by acid free mat boards or small objects can be moved on trays.

Tip #18

  • Make sure shelves or the hanging system, such as picture hooks, are secure and sturdy enough to bear the weight of the object.

Sometimes, good intentions can do more harm than good. Many types of tape or adhesives used to repair tears will yellow with time and may stain adjacent materials. Never wrap objects in newspapers to protect them during a move: The ink on the paper will transfer and stain surfaces. Use plain newsprint for short-term packing or acid-free paper for long-term storage. Acid-free paper can be purchased at art supply stores or on-line from suppliers of archival storage materials.

  Overpolished silver surface.  

Enlarge image.Detail of plated silver surface that has been polished so often the silver has worn off exposing the copper surface beneath it.


Metal objects can also be damaged by too much attention: Every time you polish a surface, a layer of metal is removed. The more you polish, or the harsher the polishing product, the more metal is removed.

  Royal Crown Derby Imari plate.  

Enlarge image.Royal Crown Derby plate, Imari pattern, $5.00 in the Henry Morgan and Co. Christmas Catalogue, 1908.

  Royal Crown Derby Imari plate, 

Enlarge image.Detail of Imari decoration.


Decorated ceramic surfaces may be scratched or rubbed off when improperly washed.


Tip #19

  • Wash ceramics gently in plastic basins using a soft sponge or cloth.
  • Do not scrub decorated surfaces.
  • >Do not wash ceramics or glass if the surface is cracked or flaking.
  • Don't wash valuable ceramics or glassware in a dishwasher.

Keep a record of the products and techniques you use to clean and maintain objects in your collection. The success of future conservation treatments could depend on knowing what products have been used.

Expert Professionals

Professional conservators have the expertise and practical experience to advise you on how best to care for your collection. Your local museum can give you the names of accredited/professional conservators, or visit the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators web site at for more information.

Tip #20

For more information on caring for specific types of collections check out the links below.

Resources: Web Sites and Further Reading

Web Sites

A lot of information is available on the Internet about caring for and restoring objects. Some advice may be outdated or inaccurate. Reliable sources are listed below to help you start a search for more information. Names of the institutions and titles of the web pages are also included as sometimes the addresses of specific pages change as institutions update their web sites.

Canadian Conservation Institute: Preserving My Heritage/Préserver mon patrimoine is a bilingual site aimed at "helping you care for and preserve your treasures, heirlooms, and works of art. It also provides information about the fascinating world of heritage conservation and the work carried out by the Canadian Conservation Institute."

Centre de conservation du Québec: Quelques conseils pour vos précieux objets.

Archives of Ontario: Caring for your Own Archival Collection.

The American Institution for Conservation provides Information for the public on the conservation and care of collections.

Northern States Conservation Center: Collection Care Series contains a broad range of information for mixed collections.

Library of Congress: Preservation Site for archival material.

The Henry Ford Museum: Caring for Your Artifacts provides preservation fact sheets developed by the museum's conservation staff for the public. They cover many collecting interests, from historic textiles to iron objects.

Minnesota Historical Society: This address takes you to a menu of pages covering a variety of topics related to caring for collections.

Further Reading

Caring for collections is a vast subject. Depending on what type of objects you collect, there is probably a book or article on how to care for it. Because of the large number of titles available, a rule of thumb is to check the credentials of the authors or the publishers. Below are a few suggestions for further reading.

Books for the General Public

Haskins, Scott M. How to Save Your Stuff from a Disaster. Santa Barbara: Preservation Help Publications, 1996.

Landrey, Gregory J. (et al.) The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collections. Delaware: The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 2000.

Long, Jane S. and Richard W. Long. Caring For Your Family Treasures. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2000.

Mardaga, Pierre. Préserver les objets de son patrimoine. Champs-sur-Marnes: SFIIC, 2001.

Museums & Galleries Commission. Ours for Keeps. London: Museums & Galleries Commission Publications, 1998.

Shultz, A. W., ed. Caring for Your Collections. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1992.

Simpson M. T. and M. Huntley, eds. Sotheby's Caring for Antiques. London: Octopus Publishing Group, 1992.

Simpson M. T. and M. Huntley, eds. La restauration des objets anciens (Southeby's). Paris: Armand Colin, 1992.

Snyder, Jill. Caring for Your Art: A Guide for Artists, Collectors, Galleries and Art Institutions. New York: Allworth Press, 2001.

Examples of Specific Topics

Fisher, Charles E. and Hugh C. Miller, eds. Caring for your Historic House. Heritage Preservation, 1998.

Quye, Anita and Colin Williamson, eds. Plastics: Collecting & Conserving. Edinburgh: NMS Publishing Ltd, 1999.

Publications for the Museum Professional and Useful for Collectors

The Canadian Conservation Institute, Heritage Canada, is a Canadian government agency based in Ottawa that is dedicated to the conservation of cultural property. They have published many books and notes in both English and French. A complete listing of their publications is at

Buck, Rebecca A. and Jean Allman Gilmore, eds. The New Museum Registration Methods. Washington: American Association of Museums, 1998.

Guillemard, D. and C. Laroque. Manuel de conservation preventive: Gestion et contrôle des collections. Paris: OCIM, 1994.

Markarian, Phillippe et Cécile Rat. La conservation préventive des collections. Paris: Musée des techniques et cultures comtoises, OCIM, 2002.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Care and Handling of Art Objects: Practices in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996.

Smith, D. Alberta Museums Association Standard Practices Handbook. Edmonton: Alberta Museums Association, 1990, revised edition 2001.

Examples of Specialized Publications

Hendricks, Klaus et al. Fundamentals of Photographic Conservation: A Study Guide. Toronto: Lugus Publications, National Archives of Canada, and the Canadian Communications Group (Publishing), 1991.

Lavédrine, Bertrand. A Guide to the Preventive Conservation of Photograph Collections. Marina Del Rey: The J. Paul Getty Trust, 2003.

Dorge, Valerie and F. Carey Howlett, eds. Painted Wood: History and Conservation Proceedings of a Symposium at Williamsburg, Virginia, November 1994. Marina Del Rey: The J. Paul Getty Trust, 1998.
(For more information on Getty Conservation Institute Publications, go to

Museums & Galleries Commission. Standards in the Museum Care of Larger Working Objects. London: Museums & Galleries Commission, 1994.

Rose, C.L. and A.R. de Torres, eds. Storage of Natural History Collections: Ideas and Practical Solutions. Pittsburgh: SPNHC, 1992.


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