Did you inherit the family treasures? Grandma’s china teacups, your dad’s military medals, and boxes of old family photos and albums? You’re not alone. Curator, collector, or caretaker, these five quick tips from How to Archive Family Keepsakes will help preserve your family heirlooms and show you how to be your own family archivist.
1. Move Your Heirlooms Out of the Garage
If you’re like a lot of people, you had to quickly empty a family home and the things you wanted to save were stashed into boxes, bags, and bins for storage. They might be stored in the garage, attic, or a storage facility. You didn’t have much choice; you’d did the best you could at the time.
That’s okay. Our ancestors stored their trinkets in steamer trunks and bureau drawers. My grandmother liked to keep old newspapers in a suitcase under the bed. When I inherited her collection, I had a lot of work to do!
If you do nothing else with your family treasures, move them from unheated, unconditioned space in the garage, attic, or shed to a place where the temperature and humidity are moderate and relatively consistent. Museums and archives aim for a relative humidity of 50% and a temperature of about 68 degrees. For a practical home solution, keep your treasures where inside your home in conditions that you find comfortable, typically about 70 degrees with moderate humidity.
Good choices for a family archive are:
- an interior closet or shelf away from plumbing or electrical wiring
- cabinet or bureau drawer
- filing cabinet
- temperature controlled storage room
Avoid damp basements, attics, garages, sheds, open baskets, car trunks, porches and other drafty, dirty places.
Keep your treasures away from sunlight or artificial light, heaters, air-conditioners, windows, fireplaces, and other sources of light, heat, or water. Store archival boxes at least 12-inches off the floor in case of flooding.
2. Trade Cardboard for Archival Boxes
Now that you’ve identified a likely spot for your family archive you might be thinking, “Yech. I don’t want to bring those dirty old boxes into my house. They might have bugs or mold.” And you’d be right.
I like to use Archival Banker’s Boxes as temporary preservation-quality storage for the items I have’t yet organized or sorted. These large acid-free boxes will hold a lot of papers or photos, and keep any crumbling artifacts from leaving a trail throughout your house.
Don’t worry right now about going through all the boxes. Just transfer whatever is in the cardboard fruit crate to the acid-free archival banker’s box. Leave individual items grouped as you found them, in shoe boxes, envelopes, or paper bags. DO throw out any dead critters, food, or other toxic items. (Stranger things than dead mice have been found in family collections.)
3. Wash Your Hands
Family papers, photos, and and treasures are dirty. Heirlooms seem to accumulate their own kind of aged dust and grime. Wash your hands before and after handling your treasures. Wear white cotton or nitrile gloves when handling photos where fingerprints will leave permanent smudges.
4. Keep The Family Together
If you are caring for multiple collections, be careful to keep each collection separate. Write the owner’s name on the outside of the box, and on a sheet of paper, write down the date the collection came into your possession, and who gave it to you. Include the paper inside the box.
It may be months before you open the box again, and you’ll be glad you have a few notes as you get started sorting and organizing. Use these tips to Write the History of Your Heirloom and keep it with the item.
5. Keep Your Treasures In the Dark
It might be tempting to keep family photos, albums, or scrapbooks out on a table to enjoy and share, but repeated handling, dust, pets, and light will speed the deterioration of your keepsakes. A better choice is to store the items inside acid-free boxes and bring them out to examine very occasionally. Use good archival practices to display your favorite documents or photos; learn easy display options in the article How to Safely Display Family Photos and Documents.
If you don’t have archival storage, place the albums inside a clean white cotton pillowcase and store on a shelf in a dark, clean, closet inside your home with our other family artifacts. Eventually, digital copies and reproduction books like the projects in How to Archive Family Photos can give access without damaging photos or albums.
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