Preservation Rx
6/2/2010
Keep your clan’s keepsakes healthy for future generations. Our preservation doctor writes prescriptions for treating 10 types of heirlooms.
Medical students learn from day one that first and foremost, doctors should do no harm. Back in our ancestors’ day, however, certain treatments epitomized the saying, “sometimes the cure is worse than the ill.” (Bloodletting, anyone?)
 
Likewise, when it comes to preserving your heirlooms, the family historian’s Hippocratic oath is “do nothing you can’t undo.” On the surface, this seems simple enough: You don’t amputate a page of the family Bible because it’s dirty.
 
But proper preservation techniques aren’t always so obvious. In fact, the people who inherit cherished family keepsakes—out of ignorance or misinformation—sometimes follow “remedies” that ultimately do more harm than good: Laminating a birth certificate. Tearing a photo out of an old scrapbook. Putting Dad’s childhood stuffed dog through the washing machine.
 
To ensure that your family heirlooms meet a happier fate than poor Fluffy did, we’ve outlined safe, tested prescriptions for preserving 10 common kinds of family heirlooms. If you possess a keepsake that doesn’t fit neatly into these categories, use the tips prescribed for items of the same material (paper, wood, cloth, metal)—and see the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works’ Web site to find advice and professional conservators to consult.