The other articles in this series cover a variety of specific types of family history items. But what about family heirlooms that don’t fall into one of these tidy categories? These heirlooms could include a wide variety of objects of sentimental importance to a family, such as a baby blessing or christening dress, a piece of jewelry, a quilt, a war medal, a musical instrument, a vase, or just about anything else that a family feels is a treasure. Although each type of object has its own challenges, here are some suggestions to help you figure out what to do with those family objects that just don’t fit in the document or photo box.
Sorting and Choosing
The first step in preserving family artifacts is deciding which ones to preserve. More than documents or data, family artifacts tend to take up space and present conservation challenges. There are no hard and fast rules about what can be an heirloom and what can’t be. Choose items that hold sentimental value and tell family stories and that make sense logistically for you to preserve. If space is at a premium for you, consider other family members who might also value the item and be better equipped to house it.
Make labeling part of your process. Include basic information explaining not only what the item is but why it’s important. A quilt or medal with no accompanying information is like a photo with no caption. If people don’t know its story, it will have no value to them and be at risk of getting thrown out.
Clean, Cool, and Collected
A few general suggestions can apply to most family heirlooms. First, keep artifacts clean and free of dust. Minimize handling, and store the artifacts safely. If you have dirty or damaged artifacts, use preservation-safe techniques to clean or repair them, or consult a professional conservator. “It’s very easy to damage an artifact irreversibly through lack of knowledge and experience,” says Chris McAfee, head conservator of rare books and manuscripts at Brigham Young University Library.
Find a suitable storage place for your items—cool, dry environments work best. Archival boxes or containers exist in many sizes, and you may be able to find one suitable for your artifact. You can even have custom boxes made or cover the items with a sheet to protect them from dust. If you need to move an artifact, lift it carefully, picking it up by its sturdiest part—which is likely not a handle. Also consider the trade-offs to making an object available and conserving it, and figure out what makes sense to you. Do you want to keep grandma’s quilt on a bed so you can enjoy it or store it in a box where it will be safer?
Do a little research to learn the best practices for preserving your specific artifact. Here are ideas for two of the most common types of artifacts.
Textiles, including clothing
When using or displaying textiles, touch them only with clean, dry hands. When storing textiles, lay them flat in environmentally-controlled temperatures with minimal light; particularly avoid sunlight. If you decide to hang clothing, use preservation-safe hangers. If a delicate textile needs cleaning, consider calling a professional conservator for help.
To clean jewelry of value (even if it’s just sentimental value), take it to a jeweler, or follow specific guidelines instead of attempting a do-it-yourself project at home with bleach and a toothbrush. For storage, keep diamonds wrapped separately from other jewelry pieces to keep them from scratching softer stones. Wrap stones with archival tissue. For silver, use silver cloth to wrap it. Then store all jewelry in acid free boxes.
Part of what makes family artifacts so special is how unique they are. Generally, as one-of-a-kind items, they are not replaceable, nor can you make a back-up or digital copy of something like a wedding dress or war medallion. In most cases, taking digital photos that you keep in a labeled album is as close to creating back-ups as you can get it.
The trick to preserving family artifacts is deciding now which objects are worth the designation of heirloom and then taking the necessary steps to ensure that’s what they become.
For More Information
1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church History Department, Preserving History: Instructional Videos
2. Kansas Historical Society, “Preserving Textiles”
3) Antique Trader, “Preserving Your Family Heirlooms”
Don’t foget to add everything to the Memories Gallery when you’re done!
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