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Preserving Family Treasures & Heirlooms

How to Protect and Save Them for Future Generations
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By Kimberly Powell

Family treasures link generations in a deep, personal way. Anyone who has seen their great-grandmother's baptismal gown, grandfather's wallet, or a photo of a relative going off to war knows how moving these pieces of history can be. These treasured items, passed down from generation to generation, provide insight into the lives of our ancestors and a richer understanding of our family's history.

Often these treasured family items make the journey from one generation to the next, but the stories that help give meaning to these treasures often don't survive the trip. Ask family members about their possessions from the past, the original owner, and special stories or memories about each item. Your local library or historical society will have books and articles on historic decor, furnishings, clothing, and other artifacts to help you learn more about the history of your family heirlooms and how to protect them.

Family heirlooms are a great treasure, but can be easily damaged by light, heat, humidity, pests, and handling. Here are a few basic things you can do to preserve these heirlooms for future generations:

  • Display or store your treasures in a stable, clean environment
    Filtered air, a temperature of 72
    ° F or below, and humidity between 45 and 55 percent are ideal goals. If you feel that you must display fragile items, then try to avoid dampness, too much heat, and dramatic changes in temperature and humidity. If you feel comfortable, your treasures probably will too.
  • Location, location, location!
    Display and store your family heirlooms away from heat sources, outside walls, basements, and attics.
  • Write it down
    All objects deteriorate over time, so start caring for them now. Make sure to identify, photograph, and maintain records of your treasures. Describe the history and condition of each object; note who made, purchased, or used it; and relate what it means to your family.
  • Shun the light
    Sunlight and fluorescent light fade and discolor most treasures and are especially dangerous to fabrics, paper, and photographs.
  • Check for signs of pests
    Holes in furniture or textiles, wood shavings, and tiny droppings are all evidence. Consult a conservator if you spot trouble.
  • Heirloom allergies
    Historic objects can be harmed by a variety of items including abrasive cleaners; dry-cleaner's bags; glues, adhesive tapes, and labels; pins, staples, and paper clips; acidic wood, cardboard, or paper; and pens and markers.
  • Even if it is broken, don't fix it!
    A smudged painting, torn photograph, or broken vase may seem easy to fix. They aren't. Well-intended by amateur repairs usually do more harm than good. Consult a conservator for advice on valued items.

If an item is especially precious, sometimes there is no substitute for expert help. Professional conservators understand what causes the deterioration of many different materials, and how to slow or prevent it. They master their subject through years of apprenticeship, university programs, or both, and usually have a specialty, such as paintings, jewelry, or books. A local museum, library, or historical society may know where to find conservators in your area and can offer other advice on preserving your treasured family heirlooms.


URL: http://genealogy.about.com/library/weekly/aa_preserving_heirlooms.htm
© 2003 Kimberly Powell. Licensed to About.com.
Some information courtesy of the "My History is America's History" project.

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