Displaying Family Heirlooms

By Fern Glazer Premium

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Family photos and other heirlooms.

It’s possible to preserve your memories and use them, wear them or hang them on your walls. “If you’re not using it and enjoying it, what’s the point?” asks Sally J. Jacobs, owner of Jacobs Archival Services and blogger at the Practical Archivist. These easy tips will keep your displays worry-free.

How to Display Paper Heirlooms

To keep your paper treasures on view, Jacobs advises scanning the documents and printing high-quality copies for display on the wall or in a scrapbook. You’ll still want to frame them with photo-safe materials so the copies last and you don’t have to keep subjecting the originals to the intense light of a scanner. Display framed copies out of harm’s way, adds Jacobs—away from direct sunlight, radiators and air conditioning vents.

In addition to creating display copies of select items, send copies to a number of relatives. “The more copies of an item, the more the item is likely to survive the long term,” says Jacobs.

How to Display Ancestor Photos

When it comes to mounting and framing photographs for display, follow these two key pieces of advice from Ed Earle, curator at the International Center of Photography in New York City: Use only archival materials for anything that touches the photo, and make sure the glass doesn’t butt against the photo’s surface (emulsion), or it could stick. Framing stores sell spacers to keep that from happening. You also can frame copies of your photos.

How to Display Heirloom Textiles and Fabrics

Museums display textiles on special mannequins made of foam and polyester batting—a relatively expensive option. As an alternative, Mary M. Fahey, head of preservation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., suggests arranging clothing on a Plexiglas rod inserted horizontally through the sleeves or a padded hanger (like those recommended for storing garments in closets) and placing it away from direct heat or sunlight. People tend to show off quilts and linens by using them, says Fahey. That’s fine, she says, as long as you’re aware that “if you’re going to use it, you’re taking a chance” it could get damaged. Minimize wear and tear by rotating vintage items in and out of use and treating spills immediately.

Tips for Safe Heirloom Displays

Rather than keep your family’s memories packed away, display your favorite keepsakes for everyone to enjoy. But before you hang that old map or your great-grandparents wedding photo, protect them items from the damaging sunlight and uneven temperatures they’ll be exposed to.

  • When framing original materials, do as museums do: Make sure anything touching your document—from the mounting board to the backing—is acid-free and lignin-free. (Archival framing materials are available from suppliers such as Archival MethodsGaylord Brothers and University Products.)
  • To protect the item from damaging sunlight, use ultraviolet-resistant glass or acrylic.
  • Stretch a paper dust cover across the back of the frame to prevent dust particles and insects from infiltrating it.
  • When you’re ready to show off your family history, hang the frame in a stable environment—avoid bathrooms, the kitchen, and walls above heat sources such as a radiators.

Since only experts would be able to discern a copy from the real McCoy, another, less-involved option is to scan the original document and print out a high-quality copy for display.