Here at the Connecticut Historical Society, we do a lot of preservation work. Preservation is different from conservation – when an item is preserved, it is not altered; rather, steps are taken to protect it from deterioration. Conservation, on the other hand, involves physically treating the item itself. At the CHS, preservation is an ongoing aspect of collections care, while we send particularly fragile items out to conservators for special treatment.
Let me tell you a sad story that illustrates why careful preservation of historic items is so critical. I am a pretty dedicated amateur photographer, and I took lots of photography classes in college. For my final project my senior year, I printed in the darkroom eight or so 20 x 36” black and white photographs. When I returned home after college, they ended up sitting under my parents’ bed. I am from Miami, Florida. The humidity there is unreal, and my parents had the air conditioning on at night and off during the day. So, those photographs endured years of extreme fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity, as the air conditioning was turned on and off daily. When I finally went to retrieve them, they were covered in mold.
So, how do we preserve things at the CHS?
We put photographs, postcards, drawings, and prints into polyester sleeves. These clear sleeves allow the front and back of an item to remain visible to the person looking at it, while still protecting it from dirt, oil, and careless handling.
We scan these same items, along with manuscript material, maps, and blueprints. If it’s flat, made of paper, and can fit on or in one of our scanners, we digitize it. Digitization helps us broaden access to the items when we put them online. It also eliminates much of the handling that comes with people searching through collections, hoping to find what they are looking for without knowing if what they want is available.
Having an understanding of what kind of enclosures are best for each different kind of item—glass, paper, fabric, metal, etc.—is an important step in making sure the environment is appropriate. Putting documents into acid-free folders and boxes is preservation.
Light exposure, temperature and relative humidity are general environmental factors that we regulate, too. We keep the lights off as much as possible, and it’s not just to save electricity!
Our storage areas are climate controlled, and we use these funny, seismograph-looking things (they’re actually called hygrothermographs) to track the temperature and relative humidity to make sure that there aren’t too many fluctuations. When temperature and relative humidity fluctuate, the materials in our collections shrink and contract as the amount of moisture in the air changes. If the hygrothermograph readings start to indicate that the outside environment is causing extreme shifts in temperature and relative humidity, we can adjust the temperature inside to compensate.
While some of the resources of a museum, such as climate-controlled storage areas, are out of reach of the general public, there are actually many things you can do at home to ensure the preservation of your own important items. Simply putting your personal collections in acid-free boxes, stored out of the light and in the most stable environment in your home—a closet, perhaps? Definitely not the attic or basement!—will go a long way toward making sure your documents, photographs, and other family heirlooms survive into the future.
Tasha Caswell, Research and Collections Associate at the CHS, believes that preserving cultural heritage and making it accessible is one of the most important jobs in the world. Her work at the CHS over the past three years includes processing graphics collections and assisting patrons in the Research Center. Tasha curated the CHS exhibition Through a Different Lens: Three Connecticut Women Photographers and wrote CHS’s accompanying publication. She has presented original research at the Wellesley-Deerfield Symposium at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts and the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Tasha earned a master of information studies (library science and archival studies) from the University of Toronto, and a master of arts in photographic preservation and collections management from Ryerson University and George Eastman House.