Currently, the collecting process itself is a passive one that relies on the generosity of the community and their discernment of what is important to keep, pass on or throw away. Even more importantly, we rely on the ability of these donors to properly protect these items until they are in our care.
Conservation, for us, begins with having as much information as possible about each artifact that we take in. This information includes former owners, uses and where it was manufactured.
With more than 55,000 artifacts in our permanent collection, the staff continues to work to improve the efficiency of caring for, and the cataloguing of, each item which was once a treasured family heirloom or perhaps even a garage sale find.
Recently, a photograph of a family in front of their cottage in Highland Park (c.1920) was generously donated to the museum and went to the Donations Review Committee. This committee meets monthly and consists of members from staff, the community and the museum's Board of Directors. Thankfully, the donor took the time to fill out the donation form as completely and as accurately as possible — an important component of the donation process. This can take time, but what feels like unnecessary paperwork and an attempt to elicit personal information is, in fact, a crucial step in understanding the history and context of an artifact — as important as the physical artifact itself.
The photograph and all accompanying information were carefully reviewed and the committee voted to accept it into the permanent collection.
In order for the photograph to be a traceable part of the permanent collection, I gave it a unique three-part number, called the accession number. This number was then placed physically on the artifact.
This is not the only case where one would want to place designating information on a photograph. Many a family photo, when turned over, denotes the name of the subject as well as their age or the year the photo was taken.
And we hope you do take a moment to record that information. It may be easy now to remember the names of family members or the place where the photo was taken, but the next generation might not have the advantage of personal experience to put them in context. I would hate to add yet another photo of an “unidentified woman with child at the Grand Haven State Park” to the collection.
Consider for a moment the out-of-state great-grandchild trying to put together their family tree, and how unfortunate if they were deprived of that image and familial history. In order to add such information without harming the photograph, I recommend using a No. 2 pencil or a Pigma pen — an archival quality pen that is chemically stable. Ball point or felt-tipped pens should never be used, as the ink can bleed through and stain the photograph.
The next step was to digitally scan it. This limits further handling of the image that could lead to damage.
The photograph was then placed in a clear plastic enclosure that is chemically stable, and free of additives and abrasive surface coatings. You can use these at home, too.
The three types of plastic enclosures that are acceptable for long-term storage are polyester, polypropylene and polyethylene. Many other plastics contain additives that react with light and oxygen, and can damage photographic materials. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to distinguish between these plastics by look or touch, so I recommend purchasing them from a recognized supplier of archival materials.
Once the photograph was safely placed in a plastic enclosure, it was moved to permanent storage within the photograph collection; a series of acid-free folders and boxes that facilitate a stabilized environment of low humidity, cool temperature and no light.
Some might argue that it is time consuming and unnecessary to store your family photographs in this way, that you would prioritize enjoying them or simply ignoring them in a shoebox in the attic, only taking them out every couple of years to browse through them. I strongly disagree, as making high-quality copies of photographs allows you to both enjoy them and save the originals from undue environmental stress.
We can only preserve what still exists, and photographic evidence of important life moments, or the equally important glimpse into everyday life, can deteriorate and be destroyed if continuously exposed to the fluctuation of humidity, temperature and light.
Once artifacts have been donated and are in the possession of the museum, we can properly care for them to the best of our ability. However, the most important steps that can be taken to help conserve local history happen long before anything gets to us.
The family photographs lining your mantle, the framed diplomas and achievements hanging on your wall, or the pile of sports equipment used by your grandfather gathering dust in your garage are not only relics of your personal heritage but representative of the human experience in our community — an experience that is worthy of preservation.
— By Meredith Meyer, the registrar of the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.