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The “Why?” Impacts the “How?” … Preserving Heirlooms

June 12, 2017

We keep things. Plain and simple. As a society we have a hard time letting things go. Even as minimalism continues to be the latest fad, there are reportedly 58,000 self-storage facilities in the United States. As museums, we keep things also. For both museums and individuals, it is important to frequently ask yourself why? Why are you keeping this thing or that thing? The answer to this particular question guides how to treat the item and what to do to protect it and keep it relevant.

Why is an especially important question when it comes to decisions regarding the preservation, conservation or restoration of an item. Preservation refers to purely preserving an item for future generations. Conservation refers to stabilizing an item so its condition does not get worse. Restoration means to repair or replace parts of the item to give it a look similar to its original form. To understand how why you are keeping something affects how you care for it, consider a few examples:

Wedding dress, 1929

  • Museum: Why? To illustrate wedding traditions in the area. How? Never again expose it to the stress of being worn and refrain from cleaning off staining from wedding day festivities.
  • Individual: Why? To be worn by the bride’s great-granddaughter at her wedding. How? Wash it gently to reduce stains, perform minor repairs and adjust the fit for the new bride.

Delicately carved cradle, 1860

  • Museum: Why? To stand as an example of fine craftsmanship. How? Keep handling to a minimum.
  • Individual: Why? It belonged to the family for generations. How? Use to rock to sleep every subsequent generation of infants.

Crystal ice bucket, 1951

  • Museum: Why? Made by a local manufacturer. How? Protect from breakage by storing in a box with ethafoam.
  • Individual: Why? Grandma received it as a gift from her sorority sisters. How? Bring it out and use for ice at future sorority meetings.

If an item is being kept as an investment, whether financial or cultural, it becomes of primary importance that the item be cared for in a manner protecting it from future harm. However, if that same item is being kept to connect generations through a shared experience, then it might be most important to let those future generations experience the item in the same way, such as wearing and being christened in the same gown as their parents.

Always keep in mind the reason you are keeping something, as this will guide how you care for it.

Chelsea Sutton is communications coordinator at the Indiana Historical Society. She started drinking coffee at age 3 with her dad and always stays up too late reading.

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