Handling Family Heirlooms

By Fern Glazer Premium

No matter what the type of heirloom, most experts agree that people are often the biggest threat, sometimes doing as much or even more harm as the environment. “Basically, we have to protect photographs from ourselves,” says Ed Earle, curator at the International Center of Photography in New York City. The same is true for paper and textiles. Just touching delicate items transfers body oils, which will leave fingerprints and smudges. Food and drink consumed while working can spill or be transferred from our fingers, leaving stains or causing inks to bleed. So before you even begin handling such treasures, follow this advice:

  • Thoroughly wash your hands before you begin working. Rewash them anytime you leave your work area to do anything-eat, drink, use the restroom or even answer the telephone.
  • Instead of repeatedly washing your hands, you can opt to wear white cotton gloves. Wash these after each work session.
  • To avoid spills and stains, don’t eat or drink while you work. If you must have a drink by your side, keep it on the floor away from your documents.

Professional Help

“When in doubt, send it out.” That’s our experts’ advice if you aren’t sure whether to tackle preservation problems on your own. A host of professionals who specialize in conservation and restoration are just waiting to lend a hand with your heirlooms.

Consult the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works for a list of professional conservators by geographic area or specialization. To find a photo expert, visit the International Directory of Photography Historians online. You can seek help preserving a wedding gown from the Wedding Gown Preservation Co. (800-305-3108) or Heritage Garment Preservation (866-268-GOWN).

Want more preservation pointers? Pose questions about preserving your family’s mementos in our Genealogy 101 Forum.

You also can download our heirloom recording form (pdf, 24K) to track your family treasures.