Preserving Historical Dirt? YES! We do that!

Collection’s care is a big part of our work behind the scenes here at the Museum. For the most part its pretty un-glamorous (vacuuming and and dusting aren’t the most fun), but it is a critical part of ensuring that the our collection stays safe and stable for future generations to enjoy. Sometimes the galleries just need a good dusting!

Often visitors and collectors of antique watercraft will take a look at some of the boats that we have on display and ask us “so when are you going to restore that?” Its not a crazy question in the least! but it is a common misconception about museums. Our aim when caring for artifacts is not to restore them, but to conserve them in their most natural state.  Removing the patina from a canoe that was used for generations in Algonquin Park and slapping a new coat of varnish on it removes the canoe’s physical history, and physical history is an important part of an artifacts provenance (also known as its personal history and stories).  When dealing with material culture like canoes and kayaks, the original materials and techniques are as important as any alterations or signs of use that occurred over the craft’s lifespan. Think about the personal objects that mean the most to you. Chances are it isn’t the object’s original condition that gives it value – it’s the memories, stories and people associated with the object that make it special, and often those memories are triggered by the signs of use and wear that your object may have accumulated over the years.

Proper supports, like these ethafoam blocks, ensure that this delicate 200 year old canoe is well supported and stabilized.

So, what does conservation entail? Preventative Conservation is the most commonly used type of conservation and is what we use most often here at the Museum.  It involves small and sometimes simple measures to ensure that objects are stable. Stability is achieved when an object is properly stored, cleaned and monitored, quite simply, it means that the object is inert – its not deteriorating but its also not improving!  Preventative conservation can be as simple as vacuuming out the canoes on a regular basis to ensure there is no build up of dust, dirt and grime or using an atomized microfiber cloth to remove surface dust.

Fine bristled brushes help to remove dust from nooks and crannies.

Have I hooked you yet? Maybe you’d even like to have a go at preventative conservation at home? Well you’re in luck. I have included some simple preventative conservation tips that will allow your special objects to live long happy lives. The Canadian Conservation Institute has an extensive repository of conservation notes that anyone can browse, so if you have any further questions, or would like to dig a little deeper, you should check out their website.

Tip Number One: When cleaning wood, finished or unfinished, don’t use commercial cleaning products! Even the ones that say they are safe to use on wood (things like pledge – and even “green” cleaning products) will leave a residue behind. Over time, and many cleanings, this residue will build upon the object’s finish and alter the natural patina. So what’s the alternative? It might be simpler than you think.  A microfiber cleaning cloth (or an unbleached soft cotton cloth) spritzed with some water is the simplest and safest way to clean wood. Remember to test this process on a small area first to make sure that your at-home artifact doesn’t object! Tips for cleaning unfinished wood can be found in these CCI notes: Care and Cleaning of Unfinished Wood. Also remember: if your object has metal parts you need to ensure that they are thoroughly dried (to prevent corrosion) using a clean microfiber or soft cotton cloth.

Microfibre clothes like these can be purchased at most grocery and hardware stores.

Tip Number Two: When storing special textile pieces like garments (a wedding dress, military uniform, or your grandmother’s christening gown for instance) make sure you aren’t storing them in drycleaning or plastic bags. Many people have the tendency to have something of importance professionally cleaned, before storing it in its drycleaning bag at the back of the closet. Dry cleaning bags are not made of stable plastics so there is a danger of offgassing. More importantly plastic doesn’t breath. Any moisture that finds its way into that bag isn’t going anywhere and moisture means mold. Use an unbleached cotton hanging bag instead. If you choose to make one yourself, run the cotton through the washing machine using a scent free detergent first. To err on the side of caution, you can send the fabric through the rinse cycle twice. CCI has some great tips for do it yourself garment and textile storage. The safest bet is to lay your garments and textiles flat where gravity won’t pull and stress the seams.

Hanging your garments in unbleached cotton garment bags like these at the Guelph Civic Museum allows your textiles to breath and keeps them dust free.

Tip Number Three: When we store away small family heirlooms like tea sets, candlesticks or knick knacks it is fairly common practice to wrap them in tissue paper first. Tissue paper is a great way of protecting small delicate items from physical forces and contact from other materials in the storage space. However, the tissue paper available in most retail stores is not acid free. Regular tissue paper could cause your object harm through its harsh chemical components. The simplest solution is to pick up a wack of acid free tissue! Many companies offer it, including Canadian archive and library supply store Carr McLean. Acid free tissue is a simple way of ensuring that your small treasures are stored in a way that will keep them safe and stable.  Acid free paper comes in many forms, but your safest bet is an un-buffered PH neutral tissue paper like this one.  This tissue is multi-use and can be used on a variety of materials from textiles, to ceramic, plastics, metals and wood.

Acid free tissue, like this product from Lightning Packaging Supplies, can be used to protect family heirlooms and treasures.

Using a few simple tricks you can make sure that your personal collection thrives! CCI Notes are a great resource if your at-home collection contains unusual or varied items. Are you a collector? If so, of what? Leave us a note in the comments. If any specific conservation questions come to mind feel free to ask them! We can always point you in the direction of our often used online resources. Happy conserving!