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Attics and Basements and Closets, Oh My! Part 3: Works on Paper

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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 family albums. This week’s post focuses on works on paper and was written by Laura McNulty, a second-year LACE (Library and Archives Conservation Education) Fellow. 

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​Left: Papers should be handled carefully. Right: Papers can be stored in archival folders, polyester sleeves, or framed. (Images courtesy of Evan Krape and Annabelle Camp.)

Works on Paper

We accumulate a lot of paper in our lifetimes. Birthdays are marked with cards, graduations with diplomas, friendships and relationships with letters. Newspapers are clipped, ticket stubs are saved, and treasured drawings and paintings are hung on walls. But these treasured papers can be damaged if they don’t receive the proper care. Four agents of deterioration – light, improper handling, unstable environments, and improper storage – cause the majority of visible damages to paper. Each will be described below along with recommendations for lowering the risk of damage. 

Light

Both visible and ultraviolet (UV) light, such as comes from the sun or lightbulbs, can cause colors to fade, paper to yellow and become brittle, and some types of media to disintegrate. Watercolors, ink drawings, newspaper and other low-quality papers, and colored papers have the highest sensitivity to light and, thus, are most at risk of damage.  

In your own home, objects that are on display should be placed away from direct sunlight. If possible, UV-filtering glazing should be inserted into frames. When not on display or in use, paper should be stored away from light sources. 

Improper Handling

Papers are handled a lot. I enjoy re-reading cards and letters I’ve received over the years, and that involves taking them out of the box, unfolding them, and then refolding them to store them away again. Repeated handling of paper can cause tears, broken corners, or smudged media. When handling fragile or brittle paper, place it on something that is stiffer (an acid-free folder or board, for example) to provide support and reduce the amount of direct handling. For papers with friable media (graphite, charcoal, pastel, etc.), the best preservation strategy is to have a trusted framer or conservator house them within a mat. This will prevent other objects from coming into contact with the friable media and will make these fragile objects easier to store and handle. 

Regardless of the quality of the paper or the media on the paper, always handle paper with clean, dry hands! 

Unstable Environments

Paper is very reactive to environmental changes. Paper absorbs and desorbs moisture to maintain an equilibrium with the surrounding environment. Temperatures that are too high can accelerate the chemical reactions that lead to yellowing and embrittlement of paper. Too much moisture in the air can cause mold growth, cockling, bleeding of watercolors and ink dyes, and discoloration of low-quality paper. 

It is best to store your collections in a dry, cool place. Attics and basements tend to be warmer and damper, respectively, and should be avoided, if possible. Storing your collections in folders and boxes offers a buffer against any sudden and/or drastic changes to the environment. 

Improper Storage

Storing paper in acidic boxes or folders can cause yellowing, discoloration, embrittlement, and staining. Just as paper absorbs moisture from the environment, it too absorbs acidic pollutants produced by low-quality paper and unstable storage materials.

Store paper-based collections in well-labeled, acid-free folders and boxes or polyester sleeves. Boxes should be made of acid-free corrugated board or stable plastics, such as polyethylene or polypropylene. Acidic papers should not be in contact with more stable papers – a piece of buffered interleaving paper between acidic and non-acidic papers is sufficient. A list of companies that offer acid-free and other conservation-quality storage materials for sale can be found here.

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​Paper objects in our personal collections include documents, prints, cards, and letters. (Image courtesy of Annabelle Camp.)

We hope you've enjoyed this 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 personal library collections. 

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 caring for the variety of works on paper—including documents, prints, cards, and letters—that we accumulate in our lifetimes.
4/15/2020
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