How Do I Take Care of THIS?

by DKP


How do you get information on caring for your precious family heirlooms?  We are asked how-to frequently, in areas where we have little expertise (photographs, digital information, etc.).  However, we know where people can obtain the info they need, and in this post we recommend books and sources of further detailed information on the internet.

When considering where and how to store your objects, ask yourself if Grandma or Grandpa would be comfortable in the same environment; if so, then temperature and humidity are probably in a healthy zone!

  • Minimize exposure to light when displaying.
  • Protect from excessive heat and moisture.  Store objects inside closets, cabinets, etc. in your living areas.  Avoid basements, attics, garages, and sheds.  Avoid mothballs and cedar planks or chests; if you have a lovely cedar chest, put the quilt/dress/baby items into an acid free box, then you can place it into the cedar chest.
  • Avoid wide fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
    • Move objects away from vents, radiators, heaters, window air conditioners, etc.
    • Adjust for seasonal differences.  It’s okay to be a little warmer or cooler than 70 degrees if the temperature and relative humidity will be steadier.
  • Avoid sprays, cleaning chemicals, and invasive or chemical treatments for most materials.  Beware orange, lemon, and linseed oils, as well as many organic products; it is not that they are bad, but you need to know what works on your particular finish.
  • Avoid repeated polishing of metal items!  Plating and details will wear off.  Avoid dips and bath solutions.  These products permanently alter the chemical makeup of the metals.
  • Vacuum gently through cheesecloth or by placing a new clean screen (used just for this treatment) on the fabric and holding the vacuum, if strong, several inches away from the piece so that the full force of the vacuum is not felt.  The screen will also hold the item securely.
  • Beware “swiffers” as they can catch splinters and edges and rip them!  Dust with a damp or dry (on painted finishes and lacquer) clean diaper cloth other soft cloth.
  • Minimize handling and use; most people wax and clean unused objects too often.
  • If handling is necessary, consider wearing cotton or surgical gloves, or wash hands thoroughly and avoid lotions.
  • Inspect for damage and deterioration annually.  Monitor pests when cleaning; look for orderly piles of wood shavings, like little ant hills, or oddly colored dust in one area.
  • Keep objects away from smoke from wood fires, oil and coal heaters, cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, and the kitchen in general, due to fine particles of grease that linger in the air.
  • Protect objects from dust; if objects will be displayed, use a glass-enclosed cabinet or display case.  Store objects in archival boxes with conservation-quality padding, folders, sleeves, etc.

Finally, when in doubt, ask an expert in the field: your local curator or conservator.  check their credentials before taking advice!

Inventory What You Own:

  • Keep detailed records of the items in your collection, including photographs and up-to-date appraisals.  Scan documents and photos as a back-up.  Store in bank box or with a friend.
  • In case of fire, water damage, etc., notify your insurance agent and contact a conservation professional immediately.  Take pictures as soon as possible.  Get witnesses as soon as possible.
  • In case of theft, notify law enforcement officials and your insurance agent immediately.  Share any physical details that might aid in identification and recovery.
  • In case of natural disaster, AIC or local SHPO or Museum or conservation professionals can assist with salvage of cultural and historic materials.



First, the DON’TS:

  1. Do NOT trust the information offered on eHow, and many other DYI sites.  From time to time they may be right, but our firm has been listed on some of these sites and no one contacted us, we never wrote or said anything like what they are saying, and would not endorse the written advice.  Further, they would not remove our name after we repeatedly asked to be removed from their source list.  Some of these people just make it up as they go, literally.  Double check any information off these sites.
  2. Do not try to follow directions or perform treatments intended for conservators.  Check with a qualified conservator before proceeding with anything invasive.


When researching items, think about what the item is made of, and look under both areas.  Example: Photographs, think paper and photographs.  In an upholstered chair with a needlepoint seat, look under wooden objects and needlepoint or textiles.


The following are great online resources for general public use, in the order that we find most valuable.

Smithsonian: Museum Conservation Institute: Taking Care:
Extensive information from top notch writers on almost any object!

Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Caring For Collections:
Note that they also have many articles on the same index pages that are for conservators, however, it is fairly easy to see what is general and for public use.  Extensive information from top notch writers.

NPS: Museum Management Program: Conserve-O-Gram:
The best part of their site for your use is their actual items list, such as furniture, photographs, art, etc.  We have some disagreement about what they advise, but usually this is in their conservator-geared articles, not those that the public might use.



There are many books on caring for items, but these are the best, in order of our recommendation:

Buy this used: Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions, Don Williams. New York, NY: Fireside. 2005 (368 p.)  Don Williams is a senior conservator at the Smithsonian Institute, and this book is user friendly for anyone who has collectibles, however, you have to buy it used!

Caring for Your Family Treasures: A Concise Guide to Caring for Your Cherished Belongings, Heritage Preservation. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2000. (165 p.)

©MPF Conservation.  May be printed for your own use ONLY,
not for use on blogs/sites without permission.

About MPFConservation

We are a conservation and restoration firm located in the Pacific Northwest, specializing in objects: furniture, but also other objects; wood, stone or metal furniture or objects; lacquered and painted furniture or objects; traditional finishes on furniture or objects; quilts, beaded objects, and some textile reparation and interior architectural elements, such as leather or upholstered walls. When you think about conservation, equate it to restoring the furniture or object the best way possible for the history, life and value of the object. We are fully qualified to perform museum-tectbook treatments, but also flexible enough to work with private clients to allow for daily use of objects. We work West of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico, and once in a while venture beyond the West for specific treatments. Kate and Mitchell Powell are partners in work and in life; we each have our specialties in work and in our marriage. Mitchell is the cat charmer in both! To see our work visit our official website:
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2 Responses to How Do I Take Care of THIS?

  1. The one, the only . . . Olivia says:

    One of the pictures on this page reminds me of a quilt that used to be in our family. My fathers’ foster mother had made a quilt entirely from her husbands silk ties. It had smaller, irregular shaped pieces that were stitched together with larger yarn. Other smaller pieces made of a fine grade (very soft) velvet had been thrown here and there for a solid patch of color. That thing eventually wore out, thread bare to be exact. It passed away . . . had such a useful life.

    • You are speaking of the crazy quilt. They were the rage in the Victorian era. Income levels determined the richness of the fabrics, but the design eye of the women and their skill level with embroidery determined the overall beauty. I have seen rather humble crazy quilts be amazingly beautiful.

      Women saved scraps, ties, pieces of fabric corsages, and then hand-stitched them together and embroidered on them. Unfortunately, the silks often ended up threadbare, partly because they were placed next to velvets and other heavier tie silks which pulled on the fragile silks, and began to cause them to split, then eventually give way altogether.

      This one happens to be from my own great-grandmother Hoyt, who had money. And as I have no children, will probably end up sold! DKP

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