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News Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 6: Water Emergencies and Salvage

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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. Last week’s post focused on preventive conservation. This week’s post looks at recovering from water emergencies and was written by Maddie Cooper, a second-year Fellow in Preventive Conservation.

Water Emergencies and Salvage 

A grandmother’s wedding dress in the closet, a photographic album in the attic, or a box of baseball cards in the basement, these are all family treasures likely to be stored in hidden corners of our homes. While these spaces are convenient for storage, they can also put collections at risk to damage caused by leaks, floods, or mold growth. Whether caused by a major event like a storm, a fire, or a slow drip in the basement, these damages may be disheartening. However, it is important to know that you are not alone! There are steps you can take and support you can seek to salvage your heirlooms after a water-related emergency. 

​Photographs submerged in dirty water should be carefully removed using a sheet of plastic to support the back, rinsed with clean water, and dried flat or by hanging from a line with plastic clothespins. (Images courtesy of Tram Vo and Debra Hess Norris.) 

Be Safe

  • Whether you’re dealing with a small leak or a major flood, your safety is always the most important part of salvage.
  • Check for structural damage before entering affected spaces.
  • If collections have come into contact with sewage or chemicals, call a professional.
  • Always wear personal protective equipment (PPE) including long pants and sleeves, waterproof footwear, and gloves when salvaging wet objects.
  • Mold can begin to grow within 48 hours after a water event. If you see or suspect mold, wear an N100 facemask and eye protection during salvage, and contact a professional in the case of a severe mold outbreak. 


  • Think about the 5 items in your house that you would save if you had to choose. Coming up with a priority list ahead of time can help you focus on what is most important to you and your family in the event that there is an emergency. 
  • Put together a kit. Most of us have a closet or shelf where we keep the flashlights and batteries. This is the perfect spot to keep your emergency salvage kit. A good kit includes: gloves, N100 facemasks, eye protection, clean towels, unprinted newsprint or paper towels, and a few plastic bins. 


  • It can be tempting to want to jump right in and start grabbing your wet heirlooms, but stop and take photographs with your phone or camera before and during salvage for insurance and documentation purposes. 
  • Handle objects with care. Waterlogged objects are especially fragile when wet. You can use towels or another strong fabric as a sling when handling fragile textiles, and a piece of plastic, like a page protector, to handle wet paper or photographs.
  • Gentle air-drying is appropriate for most materials. Place on towels, unprinted newsprint, or other absorbent materials in a well-ventilated space, and change out the absorbent materials when saturated. Use fans that circulate air in the room without blowing directly on objects. Do not use a hairdryer. 
  • Damp books should be stood on end and fanned out to allow for air circulation.
  • Photographs, prints and drawings should be removed carefully from their  frames and glazing and allowed to air dry. While these materials may cockle and curl after drying, they can be gently flattened under light weight later. Seek expert assistance for photographs and other treasures adhered to their glazing.
  • Dirty and damp photographs can be rinsed in a bath of clean water, then air-dried flat or by hanging from the corner with plastic clothespins. Avoid touching or blotting their fragile surfaces. Photographs should be removed from the plastic sleeves of modern album pages to prevent mold growth. Cut the sleeve and gently peel it away from the surface of the dampened photograph. 
  • Damp paintings should be removed from frames and glazing if possible. Paintings should then be air-dried face up and elevated on blocks to allow for air-flow to both the back and front of the canvas. If a painting appears to be flaking or the frame is difficult to remove, set aside (face up and horizontal) and contact a professional. Never remove a painting from its stretcher. 
  • Textiles, photographs, paper, and books that cannot be air dried immediately can be wrapped in butcher or wax paper and frozen until a professional can treat them.

​​Damp books should be stood on end and fanned open. (Image courtesy of Melissa Tedone.)

Additional Resources

  • If an item is damaged or has come into contact with contaminated water, you should consult with a conservator. Professional conservation services can be found through this service provided by the American Institute for Conservation. 
  • The Heritage Emergency National Taskforce has a webpage of resources for the public and historic property owners. 
  • This video from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation describes techniques for collections salvage from water events. 

Water emergencies can be extremely difficult to handle both physically and emotionally. Many members of the public throw away water-damaged materials in despair when they can be saved and cherished for generations to come. We hope these guidelines will prevent unnecessary loss of their family treasures.  

We hope you've enjoyed this entry in our new series focused on caring for your family heirlooms. This series will continue throughout the summer and cover a variety of items and materials. If you have any comments on the series thus far, including materials you’d like to see covered in future posts, please email us at

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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This week’s post focuses on collections at risk from leaks, floods, or mold growth and how to salvage your heirlooms after a water-related emergency.

​This week’s post focuses on collections at risk from leaks, floods, or mold growth and how to salvage your heirlooms after a water-related emergency. 

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