Nathan Richardson's pocket watch from the 1800s, Morrison County Historical Society collections.
history pragmatic historian

Challenge – How Would You Preserve an Artifact?

One more challenge for the time being, this one related to the preservation of historical resources.

In the museum field, we tend to call 3-dimensional historical resources “artifacts” and books, documents, and photos “archival materials.” The term “artifact” can also encompass archival materials, so to simplify this post, I’ll mostly use “artifact.”

Artifacts and archival materials make their way to museum collections through a variety of routes, but often they come to museums from individuals who used them in their homes.

Items come to us in a variety of conditions, from near-mint condition to so-moldy-we-don’t-want-to-touch-it. We’d really rather not see the latter artifact because it’s difficult to clean, not good for the health of museum staff and volunteers, and can potentially contaminate other artifacts. How would you prevent this sort of deterioration of an artifact before it reaches a museum?

Challenge – How Would You Preserve an Artifact?

Consider a special possession you own. It could be a letter, an article of clothing, a piece of jewelry, a record album, a toy or a coin.

Without knowing anything about how museums care for artifacts, how would you take care of this possession?

Where would you store it? Would you put it in a box? Would you wad it up and throw it in a dirty corner? (Yes, I’m leading the witness with that last question.)

Would you handle it gently or roughly?

What room of your house might you keep it in? Would you put it in a damp basement? A cold barn? A dusty, hot attic?

How would you ensure that the story of this possession got passed on to someone else? Would you keep it a secret that goes to the grave with you?

The Purpose of the Challenge: What I want to show you with this challenge, especially with my leading questions, is that it’s not difficult to figure out conditions that will help preserve your special possessions that might end up as museum artifacts some day. The key is to store items in places that are comfortable for you … not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry, not too dirty or dusty … and to avoid sudden, extreme fluctuations in the environment.

Should you wish to pass some of your possessions along to a family member or an institution, both will appreciate the care you’ve taken to keep them in good condition.

If you want more information on how to store items for long-term preservation, check out “Sorting for History: Leaving a Legacy Through Your Possessions,” a booklet (or monograph, if you want to use the fancy term) that I wrote for the Morrison County Historical Society. It is available online as a digital document, or you can purchase a printed copy through MCHS’s online shop.