Spring Cleaning: sorting and storing your family photos

As we head into summer some spring cleaning projects may still be on your to-do list. Maybe you inherited old family photos or you’ve been collecting postcards and prints from your travels that you’d like to get in order. We often get asked about how to care for documents, photos, and family albums. Here are some steps that you can take yourself to get your own collection organized and minimize future damage.

Getting started is a little like baking. The process will be easier if you read the recipe first and have the right tools and ingredients at hand before you dig in. Discovering that you are one egg short for your cake can really throw a wrench in the plans. Then, choose a dedicated space that you can take over while you carry out your project. Ideally, you can leave your project undisturbed over the day or weeks that you work on it, the space is clean, and you can cover light-sensitive objects when you aren’t working. If you have several boxes to get through break your project up into manageable chunks. Tackle one box at a time instead of all at once.

After reading the steps below you’ll have a better idea of whether you can complete this project on your own or if you’ll need some additional help or advice from a conservator.

Getting an overview of your collection

We recommend starting most projects with an assessment. This allows you to get an overall snap shot and create a road map of how to move forward. The overview should answer the following questions:

  • What materials and objects do I have?
  • How many do I have of each type?
  • Do I want to keep everything?
  • Do I want to whittle my collection down to the most important things?
  • What do I consider important?

Answering these questions will help inform your next steps. It will also help you figure out the type and quantity of supplies you will need. When looking through your collection write down the types of objects and approximate quantity. A rough estimate will do. You’ll want to know if you have documents, photographs, frames, albums, other three-dimensional objects, textiles, or a combination. This way you will discover if you have all 4×6″ prints that can fit into a box together or framed works and albums that need to be stored separately.

Choosing storage containers

The right storage containers will go a long way to prevent damage to your collection. However, some materials are better than others and there are a few other factors that will go into your decision process for which are right for you. Paper-based containers such as corrugated board boxes and bristol board folders are suitable for most projects as long as they are acid-free and if possible, lignin-free. Some archival boards have a buffer, often calcium carbonate, which is alkaline and can neutralize acids. Wood-pulp paper products often used for documents and for backing photographs release acids as they age causing further damage to objects around them. However, the alkaline reserve in buffered materials can negatively interact with photographic emulsions. So, use only unbuffered tissue paper and boards with photographic collections.

Plastic containers may be useful if you need to protect against potential water spills and high humidity. Plastic bins with lids are great for stacking if you many boxes worth to store. Small objects can be put into appropriately sized paper-based boxes and then arranged into plastic bins for additional protection. Boxes within a box, or layered housing, adds layers of protection against light and fluctuations in the environment. Interleaving sheets or folders can be used to protect each individual object, these can be put into a box all together, which can be put into a larger box for ease of handling.

Documents, albums, and photographs often come in standardized sizes. This makes purchasing pre-made housing enclosures relatively straightforward.

Handling for safety

A few measures can be put into place to keep you and your heirlooms safe while you handle them.

  • Place a washable cloth, such as a bedsheet, or plastic sheet on your work surface. This will help define your workspace and keep any possible mold and debris from spreading around the house. The cloth will help you collect small bits that may come loose during handling. It can also be easily rolled up and washed when you are finished with your project.
  • Wear a clean apron to protect your clothes. Make sure it is easily removable and washable for when you have finished working for the day.
  • Wash and dry your hands completely before handling objects. We all have oils and salts on our hands that can soil or damage paper and photographs.
  • Wear gloves to further protect against oils from your hands. Gloves can also protect you from mold and grime that may have accumulated on the documents. We recommend powder-free nitrile gloves that fit well to provide maximum dexterity.
  • Loose dust can be removed with an air blower to prevent abrasion across photographic surfaces. It is tempting, but don’t blow the dust off yourself as you risk releasing drops of saliva as well. Occasionally a soft-bristle brush, such as a mop-style watercolor brush, can be used to reduce dust.

Finishing your project

In the end, your documents and photographs should be neatly organized in a way that will make it easy for you to access and find them in the future. Additionally, the housing should minimize bent edges from handling and be made from materials that will not cause damage. The steps outlined here are by no means exhaustive for your spring cleaning project.

You can find materials and more information at the following links.

We are available for consultations if you are interested in getting assistance with your project.


Additional Information

How to care for artwork that is displayed outdoors

Do you have a sculpture in your garden that isn’t looking as great as the day you installed it? Perhaps you oversee the care of sculpture on the grounds at your organization. Maybe some damage occurred from a falling branch or that ice storm a few weeks back.

Garden statuary and outdoor sculpture often get forgotten and lost in the landscaping. They look so sturdy and permanent, it is easy to forget that they need upkeep and maintenance just like a house or car. We have a few easy steps that you can take to ensure the artwork that adds beauty to your grounds will continue to do so for generations.

Step One: Inventory

The first step is to make a list of the works that you have. Add photos and a description. This will be helpful for any insurance claims you might need to make in the future. In the description add as much information as you can. Here is the basic information we like to collect:

  • title,
  • artist,
  • date the work was made,
  • dimensions,
  • materials, and
  • inventory number (if you have one).

The most common materials for outdoor sculpture are traditional materials: bronze, steel, painted metal, wood, and stone. But many new materials are being used and have become more common, such as fiberglass, epoxy resins, and a wide variety of plastic.

Assessing a bronze statue that is surrounded by vegetation.

To complete your inventory, take overall photos of the artwork in its current location from four sides. Detail photos of fasteners that secure it to the ground or wall are also helpful.

Step Two: Document the Condition

Set aside some time to visually assess the condition. Walk around the artwork and note anything that looks different. My favorite tools for this job are a flashlight, a bamboo skewer (for poking at things), and a camera. Taking detailed snapshots of potential problem areas is helpful for future reference. Many phones and tablets make it easy to draw on the images and circle areas of interest or jot down a few notes about what you see.

If you have images from when the work was first installed still take up-to-date images. The historic photos are great reference points for comparison to the current condition. Things that you should look for are:

  • corrosion
  • peeling paint
  • loose screws or joints
  • cracks
  • accumulated bird droppings, moss, lichens, and pollution grime

If you don’t see any of these condition issues, you are good to go!

If you do see something of concern, you may want to arrange a time for a conservator to take a look and determine what steps should be taken next. Your sculpture might need a good cleaning or more invasive work to make sure it is stable.

Step Three: Set up a Maintenance Schedule

Just like your car, artwork and statuary that sit outside need a good cleaning! For sculpture about once a year is usually enough. Protective coatings can also be applied to most metal sculptures, such as bronze and steel, to help prevent uneven corrosion appear and improve the overall appearance. Cleaning involves the use of non-ionic detergents, filtered water, and a good scrub brush. With all of the time and money that gets put into lawn and yard maintenance, make sure your sculpture is looking its best too.

Training can be scheduled if you are interested in maintaining your sculpture yourself. We can also come and take care of everything for you. Set up an annual subscription and you won’t have to think about it ever again.

Cleaning Rodin’s “The Thinker” with a pressure washer. Outdoor sculpture maintenance can sometimes require specialized equipment. Photo by Joan Neubecker.

Step Four: Assess Location and Seasonal Storage

With the information you’ve collected, you can determine if your sculpture is in the best location for its long-term preservation. Another option is to make improvements to its current location. Perhaps the limbs from a nearby tree need to be trimmed or the ground regraded to prevent water from pooling below. The conditions that you have documented can lead you to the source of the issue. Now you can make a plan to address them. If you feel out of your depth, get in touch to schedule an assessment and have us take care of the issues.

There are times when sculpture may need to be covered or stored out of the elements, such as during construction. If you have off-season months when nobody is around to check on sculpture, protective covers can be used to protect them from ice, vandalism, and falling branches. We can help you determine safe ways to cover your outdoor artwork and connect you with manufacturers.