Monday, May 30, 2011

Acrylic Glazing

Selecting mats and frames for a 1950 diploma from
Traphagen School of Fashion.

When choosing strategies for framing an object, Jessica Makin, Manager of Housing and Framing at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, says that the primary goal is always to protect the object.  Making the object look attractive is very important, but is nevertheless a secondary goal.

In terms of priority:

#1:  Protect the object.
#2:  Make it look good.

Jessica Makin, CCAHA
Manager of Housing and
According to Jessie, you can do both by thoughtfully investing in an appropriate mat, a good frame, and acrylic UV glazing.

Acrylic glazing sounds good to me.  During 23 years of marriage, my wife and I have moved three times, in addition to moving nearly all the household contents when we had a flood in the house three years ago.  We’ve learned from experience that things break during a move.  It’s inevitable.

Among the more unpleasant moving experiences is finding shattered glass in a box with a framed item.  Broken glass can endanger the object in the frame, anything else in the box, and even injure the person doing the unpacking.

Memories like this come back to me as Jessie examines my mother’s 1950 diploma from Traphagen School of  Fashion.  “When framing, we don’t like to use glass;  we always recommend acrylic glazing,” Jessie says.  “While acrylic glazing can potentially scratch, it will never shatter. You don’t want to risk having shattered glass.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Preserving Antique Videotapes

All across the country, families have unique videotapes of family activities and events that provide a valuable record of their pasts.  These videotapes may look sturdy in their cumbersome plastic cases but the magnetic tape inside them is fairly vulnerable.  So what do you do to preserve your videotapes now that technology has passed them by?  (Put them into storage with your equally unwieldy eight-track tapes?)

Unfortunately, the subject of videotape preservation is inextricably tied into the need for preservation of the playback equipment.  A pristine videotape is of little value without a VCR to play it on.  Above all, you want to ensure that the content of these videotapes remains accessible.

Laura Hortz Stanton, Director of Preservation Services at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, recommends reformatting the video content to a more accessible medium.  Currently this means digitizing the video so the content can be accessed on a DVD.  Then you can simply pop the disc into the DVD player whenever you like (leaving your VCR in eternal storage).

But even though the digitized material is now accessible, the original videotape still has value.  Laura maintains that you should make an effort to preserve the original videotape.  Put them in long-term storage.  And as part of the storage process, she reminds me that you should always remove the record tab from the side of the cassette.  Just snap it off.  This way you or your descendents will never be in danger of accidentally recording over a unique tape.

The original videotape should be stored upright in a plastic (rather than cardboard) video box.  And be careful with temperature and humidity, Laura warns.  High humidity is bad for videotapes;  freezing temperatures are bad, too.  Temperatures between 40 and 70 degrees are best.

Save the original.  Save the copy.  And be ready to save to the next medium when it arrives, rendering DVD or Blu-ray as obsolete as today’s videotapes.

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, May 23, 2011

Temperature and Humidity Concerns

The house in Florida, garage on the left.

When my parents moved to Florida, the family collection went with them.  Most of the items were kept inside the house where temperature and humidity levels were fairly constant.  These items fared well.  But other items landed in long-term temporary storage in the garage where they were exposed to Florida’s high temperatures and high humidity.  Consequently, they suffered.

“Temperature and relative humidity are major concerns in preservation,” according to Laura Hortz Stanton, Director of Preservation Services at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.  “A garage in cold weather isn’t too bad for storage.  But high temperatures can lead to degradation.

“Humidity is an even greater concern,” Laura says.  “You don’t want the storage environment to be either too damp or too dry.  Ideally, the relative humidity should be no less than 35% and no greater than 65%.”  When it’s too dry, the paper can become brittle and when it’s too humid, it can become excessively floppy, as
Acid-free folders and boxes offering
layers of protection.
well as increasing the risk for mold growth.

The conditions that are most comfortable for people tend to be best for collections.  “Spring and fall weather is where collections are happiest,” Laura notes.  To protect against the extremes, she recommends using layers of protection.  Place items within folders or sleeves then place the folders within boxes (everything acid-free, of course!) and the acid-free boxes can go inside plastic containers.  The layers help to mitigate damage that might be caused by unexpected changes in temperature or humidity.

© 2011 Lee Price

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hanging Pictures With Care

Original photograph of
my grandfather.

Even though deep down I feel like it’s cheating, I’ll endorse this advice nevertheless:  Put the original photograph in storage and display the facsimile.  Except for you, no one will know the difference.  And your descendents will thank you.

Exposure to light will change the original photo.  Therefore, put the original someplace safe – preferably a dark place where temperature and humidity are at appropriate and fairly constant levels.

The great thing is that facsimiles don’t have to be treated with that level of care.  Except for the expense of creating them, you can even consider them disposable.  This means that you can display the facsimile in sunlight. 
Or you can hang it over a heating vent. Don’t worry.  
It’s replaceable.
A digitized image awaits matting
and framing.

Most homes – including ours – display a mix of original material and high-grade copies (facsimiles, prints, etc.).  I asked Laura Hortz Stanton, Director of Preservation Services at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, for pointers on “best practice” display of photographs, art on paper, and other items sensitive to light, humidity, and temperature fluctuations.  Here’s what Laura recommends:

1.  Invest in high quality facsimiles.  Hang them wherever you like and preserve the originals in long-term storage.

2.  Consider high quality framing for original items, with UV glazing to serve as a level of protection from the light and a sealed package with zeolites to protect from humidity.

3.  Hang any original artwork in areas of the house with minimal light exposure and some assurance of stable temperature and humidity.

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, May 16, 2011

Beautiful Hardwood Bookshelves

Metal shelves are fine for the bulk of collections storage – for all those items you want to keep but don’t need to be immediately accessible.  In our house, our books need to be accessible and therefore we need bookcases.  Personally, I love the look of a finely made bookcase.

Our 2008 flood experience (toilet supply line break on second floor resulting in water damage in 12 rooms) threatened our books but, miraculously, we only suffered one loss – a Mennonite hymnal left on the ruined piano.  So I guess we owe a debt of gratitude to our cheap particle board bookcases (IKEA and the equivalent) which took the brunt of the water onslaught while effectively sheltering the books.  In assessing the damage, the water-damaged bookcases were labeled trash.

Thanks to my wife’s impressive skills at working Craigslist, we were able to upgrade to some nice hardwood bookcases.  When we moved back into the house, our family room featured a set of new (secondhand) bookcases nestled on the new carpet.

Discussing my preservation concerns with Laura Hortz Stanton, Director of Preservation Services at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, I take the opportunity to boast about our handsome new family room.  She isn’t as impressed as I had hoped.  “You have to be careful with offgassing,” she says.  “The bookcases can offgas and so does a new carpet.  After installing a carpet, it’s best to give it time to settle down and offgas before bringing in collection items.”

Offgassing is the release of acid chemicals into the air.  “That beautiful fragrant smell of a cedar bookcase is really offgassing,” Laura says.  “So is the smell of a new carpet.”  The acid chemicals can migrate into the items, especially paper-based objects like books.  This interior pollution can accelerate processes of discoloration and brittleness.

Laura recommends that hardwood bookcases should always be finished and treated with a sealant.  This significantly reduces the amount of offgassing.  In addition, she suggests laying sheets of mylar on the shelves that can act as an inert barrier between the books and the wood.

As for our old particle board bookcases, Laura says they really weren’t so bad.  “The particle board and exterior grade plywood bookcases offgas some but tend to be less of a concern than many of the hardwoods.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Practical Shelving Advice

Whether your family collection is stored in an unfinished basement or in a palatial library setting (my favorite is the Beast’s library in the Disney Beauty and the Beast), your collection should not be stored on the floor.  This is a standing order from Laura Hortz Stanton, Director of Preservation Services at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.  Laura says:  “Get it off the floor.”

According to Laura, boxes or collection items that are stored on the floor:
1.      Are easy to stumble over, potentially causing damage to the items and to the stumbler.
2.      Are directly in the line of pests, such as silverfish, cockroaches, termites, mice, squirrels, and other collection-devouring vermin.
3.      Are vulnerable to flooding.

The last point particularly hits home with me.  Three years ago, a toilet supply line broke in our second-floor bathroom, causing water damage throughout the house, including rooms on the second floor.  Therefore, I can vouch from personal experience that items on the second floor are no less vulnerable to water damage than items in the basement.  You don’t need three inches of water to cause trouble.  A cardboard box on the floor will happily soak up a drink from a water-logged carpet with potentially ruinous results.

Laura’s standard advice for museums, libraries, archives, and historic sites applies to owners of family collections as well.  Boxes and items should be stored at least four inches off the floor.  This is practical advice, too, because placing the items on shelves decreases the amount of collection space needed in the house.

Sophisticated collecting institutions like large museums and academic libraries often use mobile compact shelving systems that are masterpieces of efficiency.  They look great.  Unfortunately, they’re also beyond the budgets of most family collections…

Prestigious art and history museums often use powder-coated metal shelving, a widely-recognized industry standard for preservation.  It’s a smart investment.  Unfortunately, it’s also an investment beyond the budgets of most family collections…

So here’s what Laura suggests:  Go ahead and use commercial grade shelving.  But since these shelves can get a little tacky, cover the surface of each shelf with a layer of acid-free board or mylar.  Wire shelving is okay for boxes, but be careful not to place objects directly on it.  The wire surface can cause long-term damage.

For larger items that don’t fit neatly on the shelves, Laura still insists they should be elevated off the floor by at least
four inches.  “At the very least, put it on a palette or a riser,”
Laura says.

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Preservation Needs Assessment

I could really use a preservation needs assessment.

Our expert team of preservation professionals at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) conduct a couple of dozen preservation needs assessments each year at museums, libraries, historic sites, and archives.  But these are for institutions, not private homes.  And that’s too bad because I think I could really benefit from one.

A preservation needs assessment is an evaluation of the policies, practices, and conditions in an institution.  It looks at the collections care environment (temperature, relative humidity, pollution, and light);  strategies for housekeeping, pest control, fire protection, security and disaster preparedness;  and procedures for handling, exhibition, and treatment.

While I won’t be getting a full preservation needs assessment (no such luck!), I have asked Laura Hortz Stanton, CCAHA Director of Preservation Services, for advice in a number of these areas and will be sharing her recommendations over the next two
Laura Hortz Stanton.
weeks.  I approached her with questions about bookcases and other shelving, home display of items, temperature and humidity concerns, and long-term storage.

In attempting to care for a family collection, you gain a real appreciation for the challenges that small historical societies and other collecting institutions face as they endeavor to preserve their collections.  It’s not easy!  And the biggest problem always seems to be determining where to start.  You can count on preservation professionals like Laura to bring much needed clarity to a complex subject.

© 2011 Lee Price

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hurricanes and Insects

We have a 1938 pamphlet from Bell Telephone with amazing pictures of the 1938 hurricane that devastatingly swept across Long Island.  At that time, my grandfather lived in Riverhead and worked for the phone company.  He always remembered braving the hurricane to bring my mother home from the nearby grade school.  Meanwhile, fifteen miles away in Southampton, my other grandfather was watching slates blow off the roof of the grade school as he ran inside to tell the teachers to keep the children inside.  As he left, one of the teachers loaned him a hard hat to protect his head.

The pictures in this glossy pamphlet vividly depict the hurricane’s aftermath.  Massive trees are down, homes destroyed, and streets flooded.  Some of the pictures appear to have been taken immediately after the storm’s passing in that strange calm that always follows a hurricane.  Others show the phone company staff hard at work repairing the extensive damage.  My grandfather is one of the workers pictured on page four.

Rebecca Smyrl with the pamphlet.
But it isn’t the scenes of mass destruction that catch the eye of Rebecca Smyrl, Conservator at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.  “That looks like insect damage,” she says, pointing to a small network of losses near the tail spine corner.  She reassures me that it looks like old damage with no indications of recent activity.  I suggest that we could store it in plastic to protect it from future pests, but Rebecca says no.  She’d rather have the paper free to breathe in a paper box storage rather than sealed in plastic.

Insect damage along edges
of another pamphlet.
It’s often assumed that disaster planning at museums will be focused on the big disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods.  But it’s often the little things, like pest infestations, that can devastate a collection.  The pamphlet has survived in fairly good shape, yet it serves as a good reminder of the destructiveness of the natural world, from the microscopic damage of insects to the macroscopic power of a hurricane.

Special thanks to Rebecca Smyrl for her consultations during the past two weeks!

© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Concerns About Comb Bindings

Red plastic comb binding on the 1947 Brown University calendar.

Rebecca Smyrl examines the calendar.
My mother never talked much about her year at Pembroke, the former women’s college at Brown University.  We know that she was briefly engaged to someone around this time in her life, but she never chose to share much about the college or the guy.  In our family collection, we have very little from that time – a few postcards, a couple of textbooks, a notebook, and a 1947 Brown University calendar.

There’s no indication that the calendar was ever used.  There are no annotations on it and no sign of a hole where it might have hung on a nail or tack.  The pages are not dog-eared.

For long-term preservation, the greatest concern of Rebecca Smyrl, Conservator at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, is the binding.  The calendar consists of 14 pages bound together along the top edge by a red plastic comb binding.  There’s a tear midway on one of the plastic rings.  The binding concerns Rebecca:  “Every time the pages are turned, these plastic edges rub against the paper.  The tear in the plastic increases the possibility of the paper catching and tearing, especially as the paper becomes more brittle.”

Rebecca recommends disbinding the pages, storing them interleaved in an acid-free folder, and disposing of the broken comb binding.  Since we have no sentimental attachment to the binding, this sounds like a reasonable approach.

If you’d like to display it,” Rebecca adds, you could get a facsimile made.  Keep the original in storage and display the facscimile.”  I’ve never considered putting a 1947 calendar up before but I guess it might make for interesting conversation.  The calendar’s images of college life from 64 years ago look distant and strangely formal, reminding us of a time when young men commonly wore ties to class.

© 2011 Lee Price