Recently I was approached by a large global company who needed my help with their heritage collection, which they were very proud of. They weren’t sure what they had and had no idea how to use it. I looked, assessed and quoted for cataloguing and digitising the collection, which comprised boxes of photographs, promotional material, old newsletters, ledgers and company documentation with a few other objects thrown in for good measure.
Last week I was informed that they were ‘unable to proceed with the project’. Intrigued, I asked why – was it me? Was it my price? Was it the market? No, they said, it was the collection itself. They had collected items for the archive since the company had been founded – that’s 50 years – and this process involved one simple step: putting suitable material in the archive location. Over the years, a large collection had built up, which occasionally a staff member would sift through to find useful items.
However, at this time of deciding what to do with the collection and how to move it forward, they had come to a simple shocking realisation – the photographs in the collection were entirely undocumented and therefore meant nothing to anyone. They had no idea of who the people in the photos were, what the occasion was, where the photo was taken or its date. No-one had ever thought to write this down. Much of the collection that they thought they had was, in an instant, proved intrinsically valueless. Without interpretation and documentation a photo means very little. If your collection is built on undocumented photographs then I would say that you have a problem which is often, without a lot of research, cost and effort, going to compromise your heritage.
What not to do if you have an undocumented collection? Don’t rush out, ask colleagues who the people in the photos are and write that information on the back of the photo. Why? You’re creating more problems – you might then discover the next time you look at the photos that the ink you used has now transferred to the photo below it. Archivists record photos in ways that don’t damage the photo and do ensure that the information stays with it.
What should you do? Ask a professional! Plan for this aspect of the future and learn about the right way to ensure that your collection will be understandable and meaningful to people in 50 years, 100 years or more. Don’t let your someone in your company be faced with the decision that this company is now facing: what to do with 50 years of now-meaningless history?
As a museum curator, I know that packing items correctly for storage is vitally important. This is something that trainee museum curators are taught on the MA course and which is drummed in during our working lives every time we come across damage, as it’s so often due to incorrect packing. Most people aren’t aware of this, and why should they be?
If organic items are stored incorrectly several things can happen:
They can be broken
They can become dusty: as dust is acidic it will eat away at the item, damaging the surface
They can become a target for insects or rodents
They can become mildewed or mouldy
This last is what I will talk about here. Recently I worked with a collection that had been packed for international transport and then put straight into storage in the same packing. The storage conditions were not optimal as the collection was placed into an attic with (as with all attics) extreme seasonal temperature fluctuations. The collection had been in storage for between 7-20 years depending on individual items.
The collection had been carefully packed for international transport into cardboard boxes, then into packing paper and then either bubble wrapped or put into plastic bags. This was adequate for the transport of a personal collection, but on arrival, the items should have been removed from the bubble wrap and plastic bags and re-packed for storage. While useful to stop damage during transport, the plastic around each item creates a micro-climate. Fluctuating temperatures in the storage facility had added to the micro-climate, causing water vapour collected in the winter’s chill to condense inside the plastic in the warmer summers. Bubble wrapped items had become mildewed. Mildew is a superficial growth made of hyphae, small filaments of fungus, which is mainly associated with garden plants but can also affect organic items indoors.
Once mildews and mould take hold they can grow quickly and we were fortunate that these were only small growths, easily brushed off. Correct re-packing for long term storage (a sturdy acid free box, to prevent acid leakage and insect ingress, acid free tissue rolled into balls to support the items, further museum-quality materials for delicate or very important items) will keep this collection in a far better condition even in a poor environment such as an attic.
Sometimes it’s too late. Some things are in such a poor state that the mould has damaged the item irretrievably and it has to be disposed of. Simple regular housekeeping checks can prevent this and keep collections going for many more years.
Everyone has heard tales of Granny pulling out her fox fur, clothes moths flying everywhere and the once-beautiful fur in tatters. Recently a Scottish relative showed me his kilt and jacket. These 60 year old family heirlooms had been ruined over one single winter. He’d even had to buy new socks as when he’d put them he had found that the heel had been eaten away entirely. Clothes moths (notably Tineola Biselliella and Tinea Pellionella) are a serious pest of stored organic items.
It’s not actually the moths eating your heritage, it’s their larvae. Females lay clusters of 30-200 eggs and they hatch 4-10 days later into tiny caterpillars which begin to eat. And eat, and eat, until they are ready to spin cocoons (a few months to two years). They then spend 2-6 weeks developing into moths, at which point they leave their cocoons and begin the reproductive cycle, dying within a month or so.
Moths go for organic in a big way – think silk, wool, hair, skins, sometimes linen or cotton, in carpets, curtains, rugs, runners, cushions, clothes etc. So how does this relate to your historical collections of books, papers, paintings or prints? You’ll be delighted to hear that they also enjoy a bit of leather (books) and cloth (book bindings) as well as parchment or vellum and occasionally the animal glue on canvases. Yum.
To find moths, think like a moth. They prefer dark, humid, warm, undisturbed places. Quiet parts of modern homes and offices are perfect. Look in cupboards, in cracks, under chests of drawers. And remember, if you don’t do this and it’s your collection falling into tatters, you can’t just go and get another one. You don’t want to be the one who allowed 200 years of your company’s history to become lunch.