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What do i do with this (really important) thing? Tips on preserving, protecting and displaying family heirlooms

Restoration work for a fire department, in progress at Grapheteria in Portland. Photo by Sarah Holman

It’s a special privilege to be entrusted as keeper of an important family artifact. Best case scenario, it’s an interesting, well-preserved item that can be displayed and enjoyed. I have a few of those in my home. In my family, I am also the keeper of disintegrating lace fan, a porcelain doll whose head is accounted for but detached and a pile of yellowing photographs featuring stern-faced relatives I can’t identify. Sentimental packrat that I am, I can’t part with any of it.

How do we manage boxes of keepsakes, photographs and documents that haven’t been sorted or preserved? How do we catalog, protect and display these items in a way that celebrates their past and protects their future?

The foundation of successful preservation lies in using the right materials. “The biggest enemies of photos are direct sunlight and non-archival storage,” says Bob Delaney, who offers scanning, printing and digital restoration at his Yarmouth business, Delaney Design. To stop deterioration and fading, archival materials should always be used. For framed pictures, an easy way to tell if the mat or backing board is archival is by looking at the core. Yellowish-brown color indicates it’s not acid-free, even if the outside appears white (sometimes acid free paper is applied to a cheaper core). Delaney suggests removing the photo from the old mat or backing—which may need to be done professionally to avoid damage—or digitally reproducing the image.

Digitizing is an increasingly popular way to preserve old photos. The process involves photographing or scanning originals at high resolution and creating digital files to print and archive. At Photo Market, a camera and photography supply store in Portland, owner Peter Doe says archival services are a significant part of his business. Doe invested in high-quality scanning equipment and employs a photographic expert to perform the majority of the archival and retouching work in-house. Online services offer bulk digitizing, but Doe says to be careful; often the originals are sent overseas. Working with a local expert ensures the safe return of your materials and allows for custom retouching. “A lot of older images benefit from color adjustment,” Doe says.

Examples of mounting work done by Grapheteria, a full-service printing and framing shop in Portland. Courtesy photo

Jim Castonia meticulously restores damaged photographs for customers at Grapheteria, a full-service printing and framing shop in Portland that also offers in-house photo digitization, restoration and mounting objects in shadow boxes. Castonia uses Photoshop to fix water stains, fading and burn marks and even to recreate missing or damaged sections of images. “Because of the digital age, a lot can be saved,” his wife and shop co-owner, Lisa Castonia, says.

Jamie Rice, who works for Maine Historical Society in the collections and research department, says acid free storage helps, but the most critical element is the environment. “Store your collections in a place where a person would be comfortable staying for a long time,” she suggests. Not the basement or attic, where temperature and moisture levels fluctuate drastically. “I wouldn’t want to sit on a sun porch 365 days of the year,” she says, “and neither would your grandmother’s handmade quilt.” When packing away items, Rice says to consider how they relate to each other. Newsprint tends to rub onto other objects, as might a brightly dyed fabric placed next to something white.

To mount objects in shadow boxes, Lisa Castonia and long-time Grapheteria employee, Michelle Caldwell, often sew through a fabric-covered, acid free background to hold things in place. Heavier artifacts require fine wire attachments or custom-made mounting blocks. For commonly mounted items like plates or guns, those materials often come ready made. But for unique objects, like the swordfish bill Grapheteria recently framed, custom work is a necessity. “Sometimes it takes a bit of Yankee ingenuity,” says Lisa Castonia.

Examples of restoration work done by Grapheteria, a full-service printing and framing shop in Portland. Courtesy photo

Rice advises anything done for display should be reversible. For example, she doesn’t recommend using adhesive on original items. “Glue and tape break down over time. They stain and flake.” Glass cabinets or curios help keep artifacts clean and safe, especially if an object is near the kitchen, fireplace or a doorway where grease, smoke or dirt are present. The exception, she says, are textiles, which “need to breathe.” And the task of cleaning historic objects should always be left to professional archivists, she says.

To take the next step toward preservation, start at Northeast Document Conservation Center in Massachusetts, a regional hub for conservation. Their services are extensive (far beyond document preservation) and they offer online pamphlets, how-to’s and other free resources. Maine Historical Society will also steer inquirers toward local conservators, many of whom have specialty areas.

Sometimes when it comes to artifacts, “What’s done is done,” Rice says. “But the best thing you can do is take care of the items in your custody.” And you didn’t ask for custody, take it as a compliment that the rest of the family considered you worthy of the task.

Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.