Using Technology to Keep your Antiques Safe
By Kary Pardy
In 2014, Harvard University unveiled newly “restored” Mark Rothko murals. The paintings had been locked away after previously hanging on the sunny wall of the dining hall from 1962-1979 and had been considerably faded. Many thought they would remain so because Rothko’s special paint formulations were too weak to withstand traditional conservation techniques. If curators tried to repair them, they would alter them irreversibly, a big red flag for conservationists. The fix? New technology developed by Harvard, MIT, and the University of Basel that used custom software to evaluate any faded areas on the paintings against any remaining original color and digitally create a corrected image. They then projected the revised image onto the original canvas using low-intensity, non-damaging light. While the physical paintings remained unaltered, the public could once again view the colors in their purest form.
This is a grand example of the ways that technology is helping us to continue to enjoy our treasured collections. While digital projection or museum-level storage are not realistic for most of us, that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from some science-based solutions. Here are some ideas you may want to incorporate into your collection to combat the usual suspects: acidity, light, temperature, and humidity.
Don’t break out the air conditioning and the humidifier just yet
While most of us know that extremes of temperature and humidity are bad for our collections, the prevailing science in collections management was that 50% relative humidity and 70 degrees Fahrenheit are ideal for storing your sensitive objects. The Getty Conservation Institute went into the field in 2013 for a multi-year study to look at real collections and to test the standard. They found that one size does not fit all, and instead, GCI Senior Scientist Michal Lukomski noted that the optimal environment may be “the historical climate average to which a certain collection and buildings have been acclimatized ñ with broad limits to avoid universal problems like mold.” It might be more damaging to kick your appliances into gear to obtain the idealized storage environment. Instead, keep striving to keep your objects mold-free and stable. Stability might be more important in the long run than any magic numbers.
What to do about Light
You love your art and you want to see it displayed, but you don’t want it to end up like Harvard’s Rothkos. You’ll need to pay attention to your light source. Direct heat along with ultraviolet and infrared beams will cause fading and damage. Keep your prized pieces out of direct sunlight and be thoughtful about your artificial lighting sources. To minimize light damage, first, make sure no light source is so close that you can feel heat on your hand as it hovers over the surface of your painting. Second, choose the right lighting source. LED lights give off low UV and heat levels and are long-lasting. Halogen and incandescent bulbs are too cool and too warm, respectively and will distort the colors of the work. Halogens also give off too much heat. If you’d like to do more, consider UV-filtering glass in your frames or filters on your light bulbs.
Archival vs Acid-Free
When it comes to storing your paper goods, it helps to have a little science on your side. Archival options are great, but always make sure whatever you choose is acid-free. Acids are naturally found in wood (lignin is an important example) and you can expect them in paper from the mid-19th century onward when we began to use pressed wood over shredded cloth paper. They are a reason that paper yellows over time and are a great predictor of its life expectancy. Lignin and other residual acids are activated by temperature, humidity, and light, and the paper begins to destroy itself from within. Enter acid-free paper, with a pH of 7 or higher. This paper has a much longer life and will not transfer any harmful acids to your collection, which already has its own internal chemicals to deal with. Some offerings are also buffered with calcium carbonate to neutralize the acid in the atmosphere or acid formed through natural aging.
Desiccants to the Rescue!
You’ve been good and kept your heirloom out of direct sunlight and safe from dirt and chemicals by storing it in an acid-free box, but humidity still haunts you. Since most of us can’t seal off a room to store our antiques and keep them stable, they will likely experience the highs and lows of humidity that comes with the changing seasons. To combat the wear environmental fluctuations will cause over time, consider this simple fix: desiccant packets. Save those little silica gel packets you get with new shoes, medicines, and other purchases and store them with your items. They will absorb excess moisture (up to 40% of their own weight) and can be used to keep items dry when you pack them away. When the packets start to lose their effectiveness, some claim you can heat them on a cookie sheet in the oven at 100 degrees for one hour to recharge them for repeated use. They also can be lifesavers if your technology gets wet!
Saving the Silver
You likely know what tarnished silver looks like but did you know that if left untreated, the chemicals that cause tarnishing can become etched in the surface of your piece? Silver is one of our more sensitive heirlooms and needs to be kept clean of salt, grease, water/high humidity, dusts, and sulfur compounds in the air. Car exhausts, rubber products, cigarette smoke, and other pollutants give off hydrogen sulfide, which will gradually discolor your silver. Formaldehyde from wood and proteins from silk, wool, felt, and leather are also damaging, so now what? To protect your silver, store it with sulfur-absorbing materials like activated charcoal cloths, or use stable materials like cotton to wrap it. Metal shelves are also superior to wood shelves, and the same humidity rules apply.
History and Pest Management?
We’ve covered temperature, acids, humidity, light, and finicky metals, but what about living threats? Unruly hand placement aside, we’re talking about pests. Historic New England is a pioneer in linking pest management and typical collections management strategies. They have started to implement experimental initiatives like pheromone trap monitoring to identify which pests are causing problems and to target where to treat them, as well as using insecticide mosquito netting as a physical barrier around objects. Private citizens and museums canalso utilize their “Bubble,” a controlled atmosphere treatment that isolates your items (and lots of carbon dioxide gas) in a plastic bubble, which safely kills any and all stages of insects living inside without damaging your valuables since there is no fluctuation of temperature or humidity. If you suspect insect infestation, signs include insect bodies, molts, dropping, holes or tunnels, and webbing. Historic New England’s solution is one of the most antique and environmentally-friendly options, but chemical solutions are available as well.