Caring for Objects
People interested in their local history often find themselves in possession of a bewildering range of objects relating to their quest; from embroidered pincushions and trophies to bits of agricultural machinery.
This toolkit cannot give specific advice about caring for these objects. Your local museum may help with the identification of any item and will let you know if it needs any special care.
If your County has a Museum Development Officer they may be able to advise you where to find more specialist advice.
Time isn't kind to anything.
Different kinds of objects need different kinds of care.
Knowing what the item is made of and what can cause it damage is the first step to keeping the item in good condition for future generations.
Light is one of the most harmful factors in speeding up decay because it creates chemical changes which fade and weaken materials.
Both natural and artificial light can cause problems.
Relative humidity and temperature
Relative humidity is a term used for how much moisture is in the air.
A damp environment can encourage moulds to grow, especially on organic materials such as leather, paper and fabrics. A dry environment can cause objects to dry out and become brittle.
Changes in humidity and temperature can be particularly damaging because objects alternate between drying out and becoming moist. This causes materials to expand and contract, and over time this weakens them and may cause cracks and splits. Modern central heating is often to blame.
- Try to keep objects in a place where the temperature and relative humidity are fairly constant.
- Avoid storing items in places that can get very cold and damp, such as garages, or very hot and dry, such as near fires and radiators.
- Don't put objects on windowsills unless they are very robust and can withstand damage from light, heat, cold and condensation.
- Don't seal anything tightly in plastic bags because these can create a warm, humid environment
Clothes moths, carpet beetles, silverfish, furniture beetles (woodworm), and other pests can all cause serious damage to some objects. Many of us have some of these pests in our homes, however much we do housework!
Check items regularly for signs of infestation - for example, if you find fresh wood dust around holes or on the floor around wooden furniture or beams, you may have live furniture beetle. If you find tiny brown beetles on your windowsills in May/June, then you will have carpet beetle and these may have laid eggs in woolen clothes or carpets. Check vulnerable items regularly and if you are concerned, then seek professional advice.
Dirt, dust and other atmospheric pollutants can cause damage.
If you let something get very dirty, it will need cleaning and the cleaning process itself can weaken and damage delicate materials.
Certain types of wood, mdf and plastic can give off damaging vapors - so drawers and cupboards are not ‘neutral' spaces for objects.
Humans are probably the greatest threat to objects - however much you love them
Handling them can accelerate decay.
Sweat, dirt and grease on your hands can be damaging to some types of object, particularly metal work.
Handling some items roughly can weaken them and dropping them.... can be catastrophic.
Looking after and handling objects.
•1. Find out what it is made of
•2. Handle gently
•3. Work slowly
•4. Store items properly
•5. Get professional advice
•6. Use the right materials
If your object is very important to you try to use ‘conservation quality' materials - for example acid-free tissue, paper and cardboard.
Art shops sometimes stock these materials and your Museum Development Officer may be able to advise you where these could be purchased.
Always ask a qualified conservator before attempting any major work.
Written by Glynis Powell, Community Museums Officer (June 2006)