Visiting conservator gives list of dos, don'ts in caring for antiques

Preserving the past

Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2002

Museums aren't the only places historic artifacts are found, and it shouldn't be just in museums that these objects are well cared for.

This is the message given by Scott Carrlee, conservator for Alaska State Museums and one of three conservators in the state. Carrlee gave a lecture Aug. 22 at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on caring for antiques and collectables.

In his lecture, Carrlee discussed the main agents of deterioration in six categories -- temperature and humidity, light, pests, dust and pollutants, human interaction and disasters.

Temperature and humidity are crucial factors to be aware of in preserving artifacts. If the temperature and humidity an object is exposed to is too high, it can cause structural deformations, mold growth, rusting and faster deterioration of chemicals (since chemical reactions speed up in higher heats and humidities). When objects are exposed to temperatures and humidities that are too low, materials can become brittle or shrink and adhesives can lose their stickiness.

The biggest thing to watch out for when monitoring an object's environment is fluctuations in temperature and humidity, as that can cause more damage than having the heat too high or too low. Carrlee recommended storing objects in an environment with 45 to 50 percent relative humidity, but said it would be better to have the humidity at 55 or 40 percent as long as it was constant, than have it fluctuate between 45 to 50 percent.

Materials most susceptible to damage from temperature and humidity conditions are wood, leather, baskets, composite art (like a drum or mask), paper, ivory, horn, antler, old glass, photographs, metal and certain minerals.

There are several steps that can be taken to protect items made of these materials.

"Move objects to a better exhibit area or into storage," Carrlee suggested. "Move sensitive objects away from heat sources. I see a lot of sensitive artifacts like masks hung above fireplaces and that's the worst place for them."

Creating a controlled environment or microclimate around an object is key in heat and humidity protection. If an object is displayed in the home, Carrlee suggested putting it in a glass display case, covering it with a plexiglass case or using humidifiers and dehumidifiers around it. The surrounding temperature should be controlled as well. Objects in storage should be put in sealed containers, like Tupperware and stored somewhere with constant heat and humidity levels.

"The two places everybody stores things are in the basement or the attic and that's the two worst places to store things," Carrlee said. "I recommend putting things in Tupperware totes in the bedroom closet. That's really the best place for it."

Exposure to light, especially ultra violet, can fade dyed textiles, paper, certain minerals, painted surfaces, wood, feathers, colored elements (like insect wings, for those bug collectors out there) and photographs. Color photographs from the 60s and 70s are especially at risk of being damaged by ultra violet light. Daylight and fluorescent lights are particularly damaging to these materials, while tungsten lights (like most household light bulbs) are fairly safe.

For protection, sensitive objects should be covered, stored in drawers or closed cabinets or placed away from windows. Paintings and tapestries on display, for instance, should be hung next to windows in the lee of the light, rather than directly in the path of it. Windows in a room with a lot of sensitive materials should be curtained, shaded or filtered for ultra violet protection. Lights in these rooms should be kept at low levels and turned off when not in use.

Pests can be a difficult agent of deterioration to combat, but it is important to try.

"You want to really think about this, they're really everywhere," Carrlee said.

Carrlee described pests as microorganisms, like mold and fungi, vermin, rodents, birds and insects. Larger pests, like rodents, are probably the easiest to combat, since few homes are overrun with mice and the like anymore. Mold and fungi can be protected against with the same measures used to control temperature and humidity. Insects, however, are more difficult to detect and deal with.

"I'm most concerned with the ones interested in protein," Carrlee said. "That's a big problem."

Items most susceptible to protein seeking insects are wood, leather, skin, feathers, bone, ivory, horn, antler, paper, photographs (since the surfaces are covered in a protein-bearing gelatin), baskets and basically any organic materials, like furs or animal head mounts.

The most effective way to combat creepy crawly creatures is simply to routinely check susceptible objects for evidence of infestations.

"The worst thing that happens is you put a mask on a wall and never look at it again," Carrlee said. "That allows for insects to get in there and have a real quiet time going at it."

If bugs, larva, insect damage or any other signs of infestation are found, action needs to be taken as soon as possible. But instead of breaking out the bug bombs and pesticides, which can damage sensitive materials further, Carrlee suggested using a simple but effective household remedy -- freezing the buggers.


Dana Woodard, collections manager at Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, hangs an antique fur coat on a special hanger made of acid-free paper and padding that mimics the shape of shoulders and supports the weight of the coat

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Seal the artifact in a plastic bag with the air pushed out -- Carrlee recommended double bagging items just to make sure no moisture condenses inside the bag and damages the artifact -- turn the household freezer to its coldest setting and put the item in. After a week, take it out and let it warm to room temperature for a day or so, then put it back in the freezer again.

Insects have the ability to generate antifreeze in their bodies to survive cold temperatures, so some bugs or eggs may survive the first freezing, Carrlee said. When they begin to warm up again, the eggs will hatch and any living bugs will switch off antifreeze mode. Throwing them back in the cold so quickly will kill them before they have a chance to adapt again.

Dust and pollutants are a tricky danger to protect against, since they are everywhere. Dust is abrasive and attracts moisture, which can further damage materials.

"Dust on (an object) acts as little tiny knives and scissors and brings moisture to these areas and cuts it up on a very microscopic level," Carrlee said.

Pollutants can be airborne, like from car exhausts, industrial operations, fireplaces, etc., or come from other sources, like acids in some papers and picture mats. Some forms of plastics carry pollutants as well. Saran Wrap, for instance, contains plasticizers which can deposit on sensitive artifact and damage them. Safe plastics to use in preserving artifacts are polyethylene, polypropylene, polyester and plexiglass. Unsafe plastics are polyurethane, like egg carton mattresses and the foam used in cushions, PVC and polyvinylidene, like Saran Wrap.

Materials most in danger of being damaged by dust and pollutants are metals (especially silver), photographs, feathers, hides and furs and artifacts with fragile surfaces.

Carrlee suggested the general conservation cure-all -- storing items in sealed Tupperware containers -- covering objects in plastic, keeping fragile items in a cabinet and a good dusting regime. A safe way to dust sensitive objects is to use a soft bristle brush and sweep dust into the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. Using pollutant- and acid-free materials is also a must in preserving artifacts.

"If you frame (a picture or document) with an acidic mat it will be destroyed over time so if you like art there's really no excuse (to use acidic materials)," he said.

Damage due to human interaction is largely avoidable with preventative measures. Simply taking care not to drop or break artifacts is important, as are taking steps to prevent theft and loss. Very delicate materials like old metals and photographs could require wearing cotton gloves to handle. Then there is the problem of shipping and transporting artifacts.

"People don't really think about shipping things safely," Carrlee said. "At a minimum you need to double box things. Then you're 60 percent on your way to getting it there without damage."

When it comes to disasters, whether its fires, earthquakes, floods, etc., the most common danger is water damage.

"It all boils down to the artifact getting wet," Carrlee said. "That's the number one damage that occurs."

Making sure prized artifacts are protected from water, by sealing them in waterproof containers, goes a long way in protecting against the unexpected. Keeping a detailed inventory of artifacts and their worth is also helpful, in case something does get ruined and could be claimed for insurance.

The importance of keeping a record of possessions is one of the many useful bits of information picked up by members of the Soldotna Historical Society, many of whom attended the lecture.

Carrlee had visited with them earlier and gave them advice on how to use lighting in their museums and how to combat a problem they had with bugs.

"I think we got a lot of information we needed and didn't have before," said Alice Hopkins, secretary of the Soldotna Historical Society.

The information they gained for the museums will be put to use in their own homes as well.

"I have a lot of antiques in Rubbermaid in my closet," said Colleen Fassler, vice president of the society, about what she learned in the lecture. "I nudged my husband (during the lecture) because I have so many things in closets and he gives me a hard time about it."

According to Ricky Gease, director of the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center, it was very opportune to have Carrlee visit the peninsula, since knowledge of conservation techniques is in its beginning stages in this area.

"We have all these artifacts that we gather and collect and think are prized items," he said. "Once you make that commitment to take care of tangible items, you make the commitment to take those items through time. That's no light commitment. We need to be able to tell the stories of these items and present the story and item as one object so 40 years from now, those stories are alive."

Preserving these items is not as daunting a task as it might seem. Although Carrlee presented a lot of information in his lecture, his advice was easy to follow.

"In general, a whole lot of common sense goes a long way in preserving art," he said. "I encourage people to look at (an artifact) and think about it (how to treat it). Most of what I tell people is not rocket science."

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