Preserve and Protect Family Heirlooms & Treasures

Learn how to preserve and protect family heirlooms and treasures for future generations.
Getty / Matan Efrati / EyeEm

Family treasures link generations in a deep, personal way. Anyone who has seen their great-grandmother's baptismal gown, grandfather's wallet, or a photo of a relative going off to war knows how moving these pieces of history can be. These treasured items, passed down from generation to generation, provide insight into the lives of our ancestors and a richer understanding of our family's history.

Sometimes these treasured family items make the journey from one generation to the next, but the stories that help give meaning to these treasures may not survive the trip.

Ask family members to share with you their memories of each treasured family heirloom, such as the name of the original owner, how it was used in the family, or remembered stories connected to each item. Check with your local library or historical society, or browse the internet, for information on historic decor, furnishings, clothing, and other artifacts to help you learn more about the history of your family heirlooms and how to protect them.

Family heirlooms are a great treasure, but can be easily damaged by light, heat, humidity, pests, and handling. Here are a few basic things you can do to preserve these heirlooms for future generations:

Display or store your treasures in a stable, clean environment

Filtered air, a temperature of 72° F or below, and humidity between 45 and 55 percent are ideal goals. If you feel that you must display fragile items, then try to avoid dampness, too much heat, and dramatic changes in temperature and humidity.

If you feel comfortable, your treasures probably will too.

Location, location, location!

Display and store your family heirlooms away from heat sources, outside walls, basements, and attics.

Write it down

All objects deteriorate over time, so start caring for them now. Make sure to identify, photograph, and maintain records of your treasures.

Describe the history and condition of each object; note who made, purchased, or used it; and relate what it means to your family.

Shun the light

Sunlight and fluorescent light fade and discolor most treasures, and are especially dangerous to fabrics, paper, and photographs. On the other hand, heirlooms stored away in a box bring much less enjoyment! If you choose to frame or display family treasures, place them on or near walls that get the least amount of sun. Framed photographs or textiles may also benefit from having ultraviolet light-filtering glass. Rotate items between display and storage to provide a "rest" from exposure and prolong their life.

Watch out for pests

Holes in furniture or textiles, wood shavings, and tiny droppings are all evidence of bug or rodent visitation. Consult a conservator if you spot trouble.

Heirloom allergies

Historic objects can be harmed by a variety of items including abrasive cleaners; dry-cleaner's bags; glues, adhesive tapes, and labels; pins, staples, and paper clips; acidic wood, cardboard, or paper; and pens and markers.

Even if it is broken, think twice before you fix it!

A smudged painting, torn photograph, or broken vase may seem easy to fix. They aren't.

Well-intended amateur repairs often do more harm than good. Consult a conservator for advice on valued items.

If an item is especially precious, sometimes there is no substitute for expert help. Professional conservators understand what causes the deterioration of many different materials, and how to slow or prevent it. They master their subject through years of apprenticeship, university programs, or both, and usually have a specialty, such as paintings, jewelry, or books. A local museum, library, or historical society may know where to find conservators in your area and can offer other advice on preserving your treasured family heirlooms.