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News Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Caring for Family Treasures

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While those of us in the conservation department are working from home, we are finding comfort in our family heirlooms and treasures—many of which require our attention. Like so many around the country, we are finally taking the time to clean out our closets, sort through our attics, and look through our family albums. While we all turn to our family treasures for comfort during these trying times, the conservation department would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections.

Each week a different student from the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation will address ways to care for the collections in your cupboards. This week’s post focuses on photographic prints and was written by Bellie Camp, a first-year student planning to major in Textile Conservation and minor in Organic Objects. Bellie had extensive experience treating photographs prior to entering the program.

​Take this time to rehouse your photographs; photographs allow us to connect across generations. (Images courtesy Annabelle Camp and Olivia Reed.)

Photographic Prints

When I first learned that the rest of our semester, including spring break, would be completed from the comfort of my one-bedroom apartment, I realized I would finally have the chance to sort through all of my wedding photographs! For months the prints have been sitting in envelopes, waiting to be organized and properly labeled. 

Whether they are old or new, silver gelatin or digital, everyone has piles of photographs that could benefit from a little attention during this time. Following are five steps you can take now to better understand and help preserve your family photographs: 

1. Sort 

The best way to understand what you have in your family photograph collection and to eventually store these treasures properly is to sort and organize. Different categories could be based on size, subject matter, or type. To learn more about identifying photographic print processes, check out these online resources: 

Knowing the type of prints you have will help you decide which ones are susceptible to light damage (e.g. chromogenic prints) or other agents of deterioration and can inform how you display or store them.  

2. Label

During or after the sorting process, take time to label your prints. This can be done easily and reversibly using pencil on the back. Do NOT use a pen or adhesive labels, as these can eventually bleed to the front or cause staining.  This process can certainly lead to fun conversations in your household, over Facetime, etc., as you and your friends and family work together to remember who or what is in that picture! 

3. Document

An excellent way to ensure the long-term preservation of your family photographs is to digitize them. If you do not have a desktop scanner, don’t fret! There are now many scanner apps available. If you cannot scan all of your prints, prioritize those that you think have faded or are your favorites. Once you have digital versions, you can share them with your loved ones while practicing social distancing.  

4. Frame or rearrange

As you sort through your prints, you are sure to find favorites that you forgot about. Take time to fill any empty frames you may have or rotate out photographs you currently have on display. This will help with their preservation. If you currently have photographs displayed in front of windows or in direct light, take this opportunity to move them to a safer location.  

5. Store

Once you have everything sorted and labeled, you should  store your photographs in a way that will keep them safe and also allow you to easily access them in the future. Ideally, photographs should be stored flat in archival acid-free boxes or in polyester sleeves (not adhered) in archival albums. These materials can be ordered from Gaylord Archival or University Products, but they are not required for preserving your photographs. If your collection does not contain film, it can be safely stored in a plastic tub. Avoid cardboard at all costs! Acid free envelopes can also be used to maintain groups of photographs. To avoid fluctuations in relative humidity or temperature, store the prints in an interior closet. 

While we currently face many challenges, taking the opportunity to look through our photographic prints can provide much needed comfort. As I sorted through my wedding photographs, I was reminded of the joy of being surrounded by family and friends. While you sort, label, and rearrange your photographs, take time to enjoy them, and find hope in knowing that you are preserving them for future generations to enjoy as well. 

(WUDPAC Class of 2013 alumna Crista Pack—now objects conservator for the Missouri Historial Society—recently put these tips to work in preservating her own photo collection. Crista posted a video of her project here.)

​Enjoy sorting through your family photographs while you are staying at home. (Image courtesy Annabelle Camp.)

​We hope you've enjoyed this first entry in our series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. The next post in this series will discuss ways to take care of your family albums and scrapbooks. You are in our hearts and minds as collectively we focus on saving lives. We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. When we emerge from this global crisis we must and will rely on art and culture, preserved for today and for future generations, to foster joy, well-being and hope. We encourage you to visit our web site for regular updates on our department of art conservation and news coverage of our treasured students and alumni at home and abroad.

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While we all turn to our family treasures for comfort during these trying times, we would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections.

​While we all turn to our family treasures for comfort during these trying times, we would like to share tips on ways to care for your personal collections.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489