Part VIII: Issues of Conservation
By Rachel Smith
At this point, you have organized and stored your family archive in containers in a safe environment and you may have also digitized your collection. While you worked on these projects, you most likely found heirlooms, documents, and photographs that are in poor condition. They have tears or cracks, the paper has buckled from water damage, or they may even have mold or rust damage. One of your relatives may have repaired a torn document with tape or glued the broken spine of an old album or family bible back together.
Should you attempt to repair the heirlooms in your family archive yourself? In most cases, for the safety of your heirlooms, the answer is no.
However, if you have paper items or photographs that are covered in dust or dirt, you can gently use a clean artists’ brush or bulb syringe to remove it. Do not force off any clumps of dirt that will not give and don’t aggressively scrub the surface because this can cause tearing and ripping! If the dirty item is crumbling or falling apart on a structural level, it is better to let a professional conservator clean it than risk damaging it further.
If there are tears, rips, discoloration, or any other types of damage on an heirloom, you should never attempt to fix these signs of damage yourself. In museums, we often see the adverse, unintended effects from the craft glue, scotch tape, duct tape, and even electric tape used to repair broken artifacts. These adhesives will leave acidic burns and discolor paper and may even warp their structure, making them brittle and easy to crumble. Chemicals like bleach or laundry detergent should not be used to clean heirlooms because they can discolor or remove what is written or printed on a photograph or document. These changes are often irreversible.
One of the best things you can do for the most treasured and delicate items in your family archive is to store them in archival containers in an environment with stable temperature and humidity levels where they won’t be disturbed by light, moisture, or pests. While this won’t repair any of the damage, it will significantly slow down the rate of deterioration. However, if you would like to see one or several of your heirlooms restored, you can consider contacting a professional conservator.
Conservators, who have Master’s Degrees in Conservation Science (M.S.), are trained in chemistry in order to understand the chemical properties of the artifacts they conserve, as well as how they react to different binding and cleaning agents. Conservators are also knowledgeable of (and sometimes even trained in) historic techniques for creating photographs and paper items so they can use the same (or similar) materials and methods for restoration. Most conservators are trained to conserve specific types of artifacts – such as paper documents, books, photographs, textiles, paintings, sculpture, and even furniture.
If you are interested in spending the money to conserve a precious family heirloom, photograph, or document, you can find art and artifact conservators online. Most conservators in Colorado are based in the Denver area. Before you hire a conservator, it is best to do your research and talk to them! Ask if they are able to conserve your heirloom in question, what kinds of materials they use, what their rates are, how long it will take to conserve your artifact (some conservators might have a longer backlog due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and see if they have a portfolio of their past work.