We all have treasures that we want to keep forever. That curl from baby’s first haircut, or the first tooth to come out, the first painting or a special card your child has made for you. I for one have difficulty throwing stuff away – I am a confirmed hoarder. I find it especially difficult to throw away any of my children’s creative efforts, even though I know it’s only really practical to keep the best.
There are lots of ways you can reclaim some space, by using those pieces of artwork to create a photobook, or a special piece of wall-art, or by photographing/scanning it all into your computer to keep on disk. But if you really want to be sure that some of your child’s artwork, or indeed any of your other treasures and heirlooms will last, then proper precautions have to be taken to ensure that they will. In my museum career this was of course one of the most important parts of the job – ensuring that the display of historic items for public benefit, did not damage them in the process so that they would be preserved for future generations to enjoy.
When it comes to preserving original artwork by your children, there is often the inherent disadvantage that the paper given to children is normally cheap and of poor quality. It is not designed to last, and will often become brittle and discoloured fairly quickly. If you take a photograph of it, the chances are the photograph might last longer. However there are things you can do to help preserve the original for longer:
- Keep your artwork away from strong light – over the long term the UV rays in sunlight will fade the colour of most paintings, photographs, prints, or textiles over time, so keep them out of the sun. The damage will be gradual, and for that reason may not be noticed. Some colours will fade more than others, and at different speeds. The pigments in paints and dyes are not always stable – especially those used in the past – in the 19th century a lot of experimentation was going on with new pignments, which proved to be fugitive or unstable, and natural pigments and dyes are often not as lasting as chemical ones. If you’ve ever seen a shop window display that is changed infrequently where many of the colours have faded to shades of blue you’ll know the kind of damage that I’m talking about.
Often we’ve become so used to the faded appearance of old paintings and textiles, that we assume that’s the way they were meant to be, but you only have to find a corner of an old painting or textile that has been protected from the light to see just how wrong that idea is. Artists such as Constable, and later the pre-raphaelites in the 19th century deliberately tried to recreate scenes from nature using bright and vivid colours, making use of the latest scientific discoveries, new pigments, and optical theories to do so. Today the permanence of inks and dyes in reaction to light are tested using the Blue Wool scale, with a result of 6 or more being required to meet the standards of the Fine Art Guild.
- Keep it away from damp conditions. Displaying artwork in a bathroom may not be the best idea, even if it is framed, if you want it to last. When storing items that might be subject to some danger of damp, sachets of silica gel sachets can be used to help absorb any moisture.
- Keep boxed and/or framed items in an acid-free environment. Cardboard and paper often contains harmful acids which over time can leach out and damage the artwork if it is framed, or the contents of the box. That old shoe box may be cheap and convenient, but over the long-term won’t do the contents any good at all. It’s worth investing in an acid free box, photo album or framing materials. They will cost more, but will help protect your valuable items from damage. The same goes for tissue paper – if you want to preserve that old wedding dress as an heirloom – it should be wrapped in acid free tissue and stored in an acid-free box. Incidentally, if you’re looking for a suitably gorgeous wedding dress box which will keep your dress beautifully looked after, I can recommend the Empty Box Company, who provide boxes complete with acid free tissue and will also personalise your box with a hand-written inscription in calligraphy. I had one from here for my Mother’s wedding dress, and would love another for my own.
- Don’t handle it too much. You may not want to go to the extreme of using gloves to handle your photographs, but avoid putting your fingers on the surface, and handle them by the edges as much as possible. The grease and grime on our fingers will, over time, damage prints, and indeed anything else they come into contact with.
- Keep free of dust – dust can house and encourage tiny mites which can eat away at your precious keepsakes, while moths of course are a well-known source of danger for fabric items.
- Avoid folding items – The fibres in paper and fabric are weakened by folding and will eventually become tears. In the case of artwork it should be kept flat. Sharp creases in textiles should be avoided by using layers of tissue paper to support the fabric when possible. Don’t ever stick tears on important paper items together using ordinary sticky tape. The glue discolours and stains the original and can be extremely difficult, if not impossible to remove. Special archival tape is available for the purpose and should be used instead.
- Protect against scuffing and abrasion – paint, especially thick paint on paper, is prone to cracking and flaking. Paintings and drawings, and also valuable photos and documents which are stored together should be protected from abrading against each other by being stored in acid free envelopes
- Keep Pace with Technology – Don’t assume that because something has been digitised that the item is safe. How many times have you accidentally deleted something? I was gutted when I accidentally broke my mobile phone, complete with a whole stack of photos on it which were important to me. If only I’d downloaded them. Make sure that anything you have down-loaded or digitised is backed up. The normal rule is to make sure that it exists in 3 different places. This ideally means 3 geographically separate locations. So if you have it on a disk, and on a computer in your home, that is technically just one location. Remember also that technology moves on, so keep your records up to date, moving photographs onto the next form of technology as it is introduced.
Of course if you have a particularly special piece of your children’s artwork that you want to preserve, then Artful Kids can help to present it at it’s best and preserve it for the long term, as it goes without saying that we only use stable materials and archivally sound printing inks.
What I am describing here is best practice – in terms of storage, the approach you take will vary depending upon the importance of what you are keeping, and how long you want it to last. For most people much of this will not be necessary unless you have family heirlooms on paper, 19th century photographs, old letters, books, watercolours, etc. Though the Antiques Roadshow shows that more people than you might think have an item of this kind stached away.
This has been only the briefest of overviews focussing mainly on paper. If you want to learn more about caring for valuable or antique items and conservation techniques, then visit the Conservation Register for more information.