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By Laura Elliff Cruz, Collections Manager, Indian Arts Research Center, School for Advanced Research

After teaching an SAR member class in early December, Caring for Your Personal Collections at Home: An Introduction to Collections Care, I realized how busy everyday life is with constant acceleration and not much time for the brake pedal. Carving out daily time by even alleviating one item off your agenda can go a long way for self and item care. Maybe that extra inch of time can assist in properly caring for cherished items in your home?

Past and present, we are a culture of collecting. That may come in the form of use for special occasions, your child’s artwork, to items that were passed down in a family every generation, or possibly it is that newly purchased piece of pottery or a painting from your favorite artist. Regardless of the background, every item has special importance, memories and a story to tell, so, what are some tips to help preserve them?

Preventive conservation are measures taken to minimize the degradation process of items. We cannot stop items from deteriorating, but there are measures available to slow down the process and extend the life of an item. Below are twelve tips for item care in your home (please see additional detailed resources and links below).

Please Note: These tips are for general care and not specific to any type of culture or collection. If you have Native American material items in your home, it is recommended to collaborate with the artist or tribal community on culturally appropriate care practices.

  • Identify risks within your home that could potentially damage items. Resolve and monitor these risks. For example, a drafty window letting dust in, a leaky roof, or a mouse problem. What are the natural disaster threats in your environment? Identify where your main water shut off is in your home. Do your smoke detectors need a battery change? Assure fire extinguishers are available in your home and they are not buried in a closet!
  • What materials make up the items in your home? Knowledge of the materials will help determine best preventive care. For example, organic materials derived from plant (cellulose) or animal (protein) are more vulnerable to light, pests, environmental fluctuations, or dust as opposed to inorganic materials (metal, glass, clay), which still deteriorate, but not as fast as organic materials.

Please do not grip pottery item (if not in use) at the handle or other protruding vulnerable areas

  • Handling can be one of the biggest risks to physical deterioration of an item. Always use two hands either with clean hands or nitrile gloves and ask for help with large pieces! White cotton gloves are not recommended as they are slippery when handling, can snag on items, or transfer dirt. Additional considerations include never grip an item by its handle, a protruding area, the rim, top of frame, or handle by the hanging wire on the back of a frame. Wear comfortable clothing when handling fragile items: no high heels or long dangling necklaces please.
  • Keep a stable and consistent environment in your home. Sporadic fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity (RH) cause the most damage to objects. For example, high temperatures can contribute to the softening of resins and adhesives in items. Low temperature can embrittle items or can fracture paints and plastics. However, low temperatures can also slow chemical reactions, and that is why cold storage can help protect certain items like color photographs. RH that is too high in your home (70%+) can promote pest infestations, mold, and corrosion.
  • The damage from light exposure is both cumulative and irreversible. Radiation can fade materials, and pigments can darken or change color. Please never display an item in direct sunlight or with heat-producing lamps. Utilize blackout curtains or UV films on your windows. If direct light cannot be avoided (e.g., via skylight), rotate items in your home from display.

Light damage: fading and dark structural damage at top of a basket

Same basket just slightly rotated

  • Besides direct UV, please never display or store your items in the kitchen, bathroom, attic, near fireplaces, or in a basement environment. These are areas with extreme environmental fluctuations and air pollutants.

Example of extreme dust on a pot. Use protective enclosures or establish routine cleaning.

  • Establish a routine cleaning schedule in your home as dust is very abrasive over time. Dust is the most common air pollutant, but other forms include pollen, ozone (if you live near a busy freeway), fine particles from a fire, smoke, fibrous dust like from sweaters or carpet vacuuming, or grease from kitchen cooking. Vacuum out vents on a quarterly basis. Methods of item cleaning have consisted of dry dusting with hake brushes or vacuuming with controlled suction using a HEPA vacuum. However, this all depends on materials and fragility of the item. Always consult with a conservator, a collections care professional, or go directly to the artist, if known, for item cleaning to prevent damage, which can be irreversible.

Hake brushes for cleaning

Example of extreme dust on a pot with one wipe to demonstrate how bright the colors should be

  • Protect items by placing them in cabinets, drawers, acid-free photographic enclosures, boxes with lids, a silvercloth for tarnish reduction, or putting a backing board or glazing on a painting are all ways to mitigate from outside influences. Pad folds of textile or painting materials to prevent creases with options of acid-free unbuffered tissue or cotton stockinette tubing. Roll textiles on tubes to also prevent creases if it is safe to do so (consult with a collections care professional or conservator).

Pad crease in textile

Example of a painting with no backing board

  • Identify pest risks: what personal items do you have that are a food source? For example, webbing clothes moths love protein materials like feather, fur, and wool, and silverfish love paper. If you have house pets (cat or dog) that can reach valuable items, put up high and keep out of reach or separate space by closing doors. Try not to eat over valuable items in your homes (for example, crumbs on a textile that cover a coffee table). Declutter areas in your home by not creating an inviting environment for pests. Dust accumulation ignites a fuel for pests to munch on. Monitor the house with bug traps that are near vulnerable organic materials, and if an infestation occurs, your chest freezer can solve the problem by freezing your materials. (Please note there are a selection of materials that cannot be frozen, so get advice from a collections care professional or conservator on freezing procedures).
  • If you have a house renovation project coming up, secure your items by packing them up for undetermined vibration that could occur. Using 3/8’’ bubble wrap with high density polyethylene as a base layer can do the trick. Always pack bubble side out and create “tape tabs” for easy unpacking!

Example of a protective enclosure with bubble wrap/box for a painting (i.e., if you are packing your valuables for a renovation)

Polyethylene foam used for packing up precious silver during a renovation

  • Documentation is critical. Avoid dissociation of information that needs to be passed down pending the end goal of your personal items. Capturing artist names or culture; identifying people in those old photographs your great grandma is in; or taking images of items are simple tips for records care. Avoid placing sticky labels on items. If you already have MS Office, Access or Excel programs can work for documenting basic information. However, there are numerous databases available for art collectors such as Artwork Archive, Art Collection, or Artlogic.

Artist name at base unreadable due to abrasion. Please make sure you have this information ahead of time!

If you want to insure specific items in your home, call your insurance agent. Typically, a fine arts insurance policy will be more detailed than your homeowner’s insurance on what is covered. For appraisals, reach out to the Appraisers Association of America to find one in your area: https://www.appraisersassociation.org/

Overall, any small step in preventive care can tremendously prolong the life of an item.

Resources for More Specific Care:

Supply Resources: