Miryelle Resek | Apr 7, 2017

How to Handle Family Heirlooms

This is the second in a three-part series exploring how to preserve family heirlooms. Read parts one and three.

While the idea of keeping family valuables locked away in a vault—safe from dust or damage—may sound appealing, the reality is that at some point we will have to handle precious heirlooms. But how do we handle artifacts without damaging them? In her RootsTech presentation, Jennifer Hadley, an objects conservator at the Church History Museum, discussed a few things to consider when handling artifacts.

When to Use Gloves

We’ve seen them on glass windows, on freshly polished tables, and on steel swords—oily, greasy, sooty, dirty fingerprints—and we do not want them on our family heirlooms and photographs.

So is wearing gloves while handling antique heirlooms an appropriate thing to do?

The answer is yes—sometimes.

Objects can be damaged when they are examined with dirty or uncovered hands, causing them to corrode.

What are some heirlooms better handled with gloves?

  • Paintings
  • Textiles
  • Metals
  • Photographs

Sometimes, however, it’s more risky to wear gloves than it is to examine objects with our bare hands. When is it appropriate to leave gloves off?

Hadley says there are times when we can keep the gloves off. She explained that when paper or textiles are especially brittle, wearing gloves could actually increase the risk of damage because the gloves will reduce your dexterity and your ability to handle the material gently. Similarly, if you’re handling an heirloom that you may damage or drop due to the slipperiness of your gloves, such as a porcelain vase, then go with your bare hands.

Hadley also recommends washing your hands at least once an hour while handling heirlooms and to avoid touching things (including your face and hair) that are dusty or dirty.

“You’re just going to transfer the oil and the dirt from whatever you just touched onto the clean surface that once was your hands and then on to your artifact,” she said. “So whether you’re wearing gloves or not, don’t touch dirty stuff.”

Plan Ahead

Have you ever lifted a large or heavy object only to find that the place you were going to set it did not have any extra space? Or have you examined an antique only to have your hair fall in your face and tickle your nose when you didn’t have hands free to rescue you? Planning ahead before handling delicate family heirlooms can guard against damaging accidents.

Hadley says that it’s the small things that usually make the biggest difference. Before you handle artifacts, ensure that your work space is clear, wash your hands, ensure that your hair won’t contact the artifacts, and clean any surfaces you’ll be placing artifacts on.

Most importantly, examine the actual heirloom before handling it.

  • Are there any fragile pieces?
  • Is there past damage?
  • How is it being supported?

When it comes to objects that are soft like textiles, fabrics, and even paper—especially if they’re oversized items—Hadley recommends using a rigid support, such as a cart, to carry it.

“This distributes the weight of the textile over the entire surface of the board,” she explained. “If I just picked it up [by] the corners with my fingers, then the whole weight of that textile would be in those two places that I was pinching it. And if it is a fragile piece, then it could cause it to tear in those two places. So sometimes using a rigid support—a cart [or] something like that—can be helpful.”

Similarly, Hadley recommends looking for an object’s weakest points before picking it up. How many times has someone grabbed an antique teapot by the handle, or maneuvered a chair by picking it up by its back, only to damage it? These are mistakes that can be avoided by analyzing an object before handling it.

Hadley also noted that continued use of a family heirloom presents continued risk. She explained that it’s a good idea to have a plan in place for how you choose to use or display certain heirlooms.

“I know that there’s a big argument with what good is it going to do … if it’s in a box and nobody can see it and nobody can enjoy this story,” she said. “I’m right there with you. I think that it’s important to share. But understand that as you continue to handle things, most damage comes from continued handling.”

The solution is to understand the risks and look for compromises.

“You know, sometimes you can put something on display where it can still be seen and enjoyed but not continued to be used. Sometimes you can get it out for the family reunion every year, but put it in storage the rest of the year,” she said.

Deciding what to do with an heirloom is a personal choice that you and your family can make together. Just be sure to think ahead as the objects are handled.

How do you keep your heirlooms protected? Tweet us @RootsTechConf to share your tips, and join us next week for part three of this series exploring how to preserve family heirlooms.

Miryelle Resek

Related Posts
Family playing in leaves

5 Activities for the Whole Family to Celebrate Family History Month

October is family history month. Celebrate with the whole family doing these 5 activities.
Maegan Kasteler | Oct 1, 2018
Old papers

Your Attic and the Library of Alexandria | Documents Distributed

Learn how distributing documents helps them survive.
Miryelle Resek | Aug 30, 2017