3 Ways to Preserve Old Family Artifacts

A while back I wrote a post about what you should not do with old family artifacts such as photos, documents, and heirlooms. Today I will tell you three things you can do with them instead to preserve them.

1. Digitize them

No matter what you do, over time your family artifacts will deteriorate. Although technology changes over time, a high quality digital image will last a long time and may be accessible long after the original artifact has disintegrated. You can save the images to the cloud or share them to family members so that if your hard drive is destroyed, the image will still be available.

Here is a tutorial on scanning photos and documents. For three dimensional objects, you may want to take a photograph or a video. If you do a video, you can use the video to also describe the story of the object.

Digitized materials will not last if you do not keep them backed up. I recommend backing up your files to an external hard drive and/or a cloud storage service (such as Dropbox) and using a software that backs them up automatically. I bought an external USB hard drive from WD My Book that came with its own automatic backup software, WD SmartWare. It backs things up in the background on a regular basis. There are multiple companies that sell similar setups. Some operating systems have backup software built in, such as Time Machine for Mac OS X.

Burning your files to a CD or DVD is another great option, especially if you have a batch of files you know you will not want to make changes to. It is uncertain how long writable CD’s and DVD’s will last, so I recommend you save your files on an external hard drive or cloud storage in addition to the discs. Use the highest quality discs and disc burner you can afford, use an archival-safe pen or photo marker to label them, and store them in acid-free sleeves or jewel cases. If you can afford it, get a set of M-Discs and a burner that works with them. An M-Disc is supposed to last 1,000 years.

2. Put them on display

I have to admit a lot of my own memorabilia is still hidden in boxes, but I aspire to be more like TV personality Peter Walsh, who asks, “If these items are of such significance, why are they buried in clutter?” It’s a good question. If you want to show your family members that these photos, documents, and objects are important to you and your family as a whole, you need to keep them in a place where they will be admired and talked about by everyone, rather than in a hidden place where they are only pulled out once a year and seen by a few people. This will reduce the chance that they get thrown away or auctioned off after you die, forgotten along with the memories that belong to them.

I have been looking on Pinterest for awhile now, and I have found some beautiful genealogy shadowbox arrangements. This one in particular is just stunning:

It was professionally made by a framing company in Omaha, Nebraska called Malibu Gallery. I’m sure there are other framing businesses near you that will do similar work. Just ask when you take your treasures to them to make sure they follow archival safe practices so that the artifacts will last and not be hurt by glue or other materials in the shadowbox.

Of course, you could try doing it yourself as well. Genealogist and blogger Laura Kirbyson has some tips for creating your own shadowbox: Again, make sure you don’t just glue your priceless treasures on any old piece of cardboard. Make sure the materials are acid free and use photo corners or sewing to attach objects rather than adhesive. Of course, if you just have a document, you don’t need a shadowbox frame, just a regular frame will do (again, acid-free).

However you choose to display your artifacts, make sure they are kept in an environment with stable temperatures and away from direct sunlight. Heat and condensation can cause them to deteriorate rapidly, while sunlight will cause colors to fade.

Sometimes it is a better idea to store the original photo or document and use a high-quality copy for display purposes to protect the original. Three-dimensional heirlooms can be more challenging to store or copy, so it can be a good idea to put them in a shadow box along with copies of photos and documents related to their history. If you are going to put an original photo or document in a frame, scan it first so you have a high quality digital copy if you ever need it.

3. Give them descriptive labels

Have you ever looked through old family photos and come across a picture of someone and had no idea who they were? Do you want that to happen to your children and grandchildren with photos of people who you know? A photo is worthless if you don’t know who is in it. If you have a stockpile of unlabeled photos in your house, take them out and start giving them labels. There are various ways to do this. Of course the simplest and most accessible way is to write a description on the back of the photo. When you do this, make sure you use an archival-quality acid-free pen. A typical “sharpie” permanent marker is not acid free or safe for writing on the front or back of photos. The acidic ink may cause damage to the photos over time. Ballpoint pens should also be avoided because the pressure used to write with them may leave grooves on the photo that can be seen on the other side (they also may not have acid free ink). A felt-tip, acid-free pen is the safest choice. You should be able to find one of these wherever scrapbooking supplies are sold. It will be labeled as a “photo marker” or “acid-free marker” or “archival safe.”

Another method for labeling photos is to digitize them and then label them. There are various programs that allow you to sort your photos and add descriptions. You can add the photos to a word file and write descriptions next to them, or you could edit the metadata of the image files so that the information travels with the digital photo itself no matter what program or computer you are using to access it. (Denise Levenick, The Family Curator, has some instructions for doing this on her blog.)

The descriptions you write for your photos should at least have the names of the people in the photo, but it will be helpful for descendants to know other details as well, such as when the photo was taken and where, and what was happening. You should record as many details as you know of.

Another idea is to record a video of you or someone else who remembers when some of the old photos were taken. Make sure you get each photo in the video one at a time, and discuss who is in the photo and what was happening. You could also do this with three dimensional family heirlooms, which are more difficult to attach labels to than photos. Such a video will be a wonderful treasure to have to preserve memories before family members pass on and their memories are otherwise lost.




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