Museums HomeMuseum TipsTreasures of the NationCentennial Home
Old family photos or that one-of-a-kind salt and pepper shaker collection. Whatever you collect is important to you (even if you can't explain it to your friends!). National Park Service museum professionals are asked for advice all the time. Every month throughout the centennial celebration we will post some of the most frequently asked questions -- and our answers.

Here's what we've covered so far:
Flood Damaged Photographs

I have a small collection of family photographs that are covered in mud and are very wet from a recent flood. Can I do anything to save these?

Yes you can! First carefully remove photographs from any enclosures such as a frame, album or binder sleeves. Do not stack wet photographs. If a photograph appears to be stuck to the framing glass or if several photographs are stuck together, do not try to separate materials; immediately freeze in a reclosable plastic bag. A photograph conservator must be consulted.

Most modern, commercially produced photographs can be rinsed in water to remove dirt deposits. However, if the photograph has been sitting in water for more than 2 days the emulsion will be very vulnerable to damage so use caution when rinsing. It is best to use purified/distilled water, but tap water is fine in an emergency.

After the photographs are rinsed they can be air-dried by placing them face-up on an absorbent material, such as a paper or cloth towel. Watch out for puddles on the surface which can cause staining. Do not blot, but drain water by using a rigid support held at an angle. Alternatively, photographs can be hung to dry on a clothesline. Make sure the photographs are very dry before storing. As a result of air-drying, most photographs will be slightly wavy. These can be scanned to make a digital copy or flattened by a photograph conservator.




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Spots on antique glass

Is it true that mineral oil from the drug store can remove cloudy white spots on antique glass?
Cloudy white spots on antique glass are not deposits. They are tiny holes that result from leeching or the loss of some of the chemicals in the glass. This kind of deterioration is often made worse by repeated washing with strong detergents. Because the spots are the result of loss, they cannot be cleaned off, although the appearance can usually be improved by a light application of mineral oil or baby oil. An improved appearance results from the oil seeping into the chemically deteriorated areas and filling up the holes. It seems like no two susceptible pieces of glass deteriorate in the same way so there is no guarantee that the oil will work every time or completely remove the cloudy areas. Eventually the oil goes away and the cloudy areas return. If you want to give it a try, start on a small spot to see if it’s going to work for you. Use a piece of an old cotton T-shirt to apply the oil. Remember that oil makes glass very slippery so place a thick bath towel on your work area before you start and—be careful.

or more information about cleaning and handling glass and ceramics see Conserve O Grams 8/1 Removing Dust from Ceramic and Glass Objects and 8/2 Storing and Handling Plaster Objects.



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Stuffed Soft Toys

Stuffed toys and Teddy bears sit on our book shelves and provide pleasant memories of when my children were young. Can they be cleaned and given to my grandchildren for use?

Stuffed soft toys can be made from a wide variety of textile materials from simple calico prints to plush fabrics such as velvets. They can also have plastic, ceramic, glass, metal, and wood components. All of these materials can deteriorate and their attachment methods can weaken and fail. The toys can be cared for and used if they are in good condition. Inspect the toy carefully to make sure no added parts are detaching. If they are, secure them with stitching. Check stuffing which can be of a wide variety of materials. Make sure it is free of insects-a rare but not unknown possibility.

The toy should need only light vacuuming to remove dust. Washing is not advisable. If more complex repairs are needed, seek out a specialist in toy restoration. Make sure that you chose a specialist who works with and knows about historic materials so your toys maintain their family story.



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Caring for Silver

How can I care for silver without damaging it?

Objects made of silver or silver plate tarnish when silver metal reacts chemically with sulfur compounds in the air. Dirty and lightly tarnished silver can be wiped with a silver cleaning cloth available from supermarkets or hardware stores. Heavily tarnished objects, with intricate decoration, should be cleaned using a thin paste of precipitated calcium carbonate and alcohol, which you can make at home. Use only a small amount of precipitated calcium carbonate; do not use chalk or whiting, which are abrasive. Once cleaned, objects should be wrapped in neutral pH tissue paper and stored in a sealed plastic freezer bag or a silver cloth bag available from a jewelry store. Click on "Even More Info" for supply sources.



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Minor Furniture Repair

How can I repair a split drop finial and chipped molding from a Victorian parlor table?

If you have the missing pieces, use hide glue to put them back in place. Furniture makers traditionally used this type of glue. It is strong, cleans up with water, and allows plenty of time to set and adjust your clamps. Furniture conservators like hide glue because it makes taking apart old joints and misaligned repairs relatively easy.

Before you re-adhere the finial or molding make sure you remove any old glue so that you get a strong bond. Hide glue will come off with water. Modern synthetic adhesive will require scraping or use of harsh solvents to soften it. When you glue pieces, make sure your clamps are padded to avoid marring the surface. Any “squeeze out” can be wiped off with a damp rag. After the glue sets, completely remove residue along the glue line by dissolving it in water.

Flake hide glue, which is generally preferred by conservators, is heated to get it into a liquid state. However, to simplify the process you may purchase liquid hide glue that does not require heating.

If you have any doubts about your ability to repair the break yourself without doing further damage to your prized antique, take it to a furniture conservator.



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Polishing Antique Furniture

Should I clean and polish a Federal-style walnut sideboard that has been in the family for generations and looks dusty and drab?

Many antique furniture pieces, particularly sophisticated ones like your Federal sideboard, had highly polished finishes. As you can imagine, in the period before electric lighting and manufactured plastic laminate, glossy surfaces that reflected and amplified light were highly prized. By cleaning and polishing your sideboard, you are restoring the early appearance and approximating the maker's intent.

In addition to being unsightly, dust can abrade the finish. It can also create a microclimate of higher relative humidity that encourages mold growth and provides a food source for the mold. Dust should be removed on a regular basis. The best way to remove dust is with a HEPA vacuum and a magnetic dust cloth.

Aerosol and liquid polishes should not be used on antique furniture. These polishes often contain silicones, which can harm the underlying finish, as well as other ingredients that can build up and obscure the finish. After the dust is removed and the piece cleaned, paste wax should be applied to the finished surfaces. A little paste wax goes a long way. On a sound finish, a glossy, reflective surface can usually be achieved with one or two applications and considerable elbow grease and should last several years.

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Small Holes in Wood Furniture

I recently purchased an old English chest of drawers at auction and when I got it home I noticed a number of small round holes on the surface of some of the drawer sides. What causes these holes and should I be worried?

The holes you are seeing were caused by a wood boring beetle also commonly called wood worm and powder post beetle. Since this piece was made in England, Anobium punctatum is the most likely culprit. These holes are made as the adult beetle emerges from wood where it had spent its earlier life in the larval stage, consuming wood and creating a network of tunnels in your chest of drawers.

Whether you should be concerned depends on the extent of the tunneling and if it is ongoing. Usually powder post beetle infestation does not cause structural problems; however, in some instances it is so extensive that wood members are compromised and joints fail. Where extensive infestation has occurred, portions of the surface often flake off revealing the tunneling beneath.

Generally powder post beetles prefer newer wood, which has a higher concentration of starch, so chances are that your chest of drawers is no longer infested. However if you notice fine sawdust-like material sifting out of the exit holes, or if the exit holes look like they have been freshly drilled, you may have cause for concern.

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Storing an old book
I have an old book. How do I store it properly?

If you have an old book in your house that is special to you or your family, you should consider special storage for it. One of the easiest ways to protect a book, especially a fragile or damaged one, is to place it in a box. Rare book boxes are made of high quality materials and can be purchased from archival supply companies. They can also be custom made by book conservators. If a rare book is stored on a shelf, the shelf should be made of an inert material like powder-coated metal. A shelved book should not slouch, lean or be packed too tightly with other books. Also, rare books should never be stored in an uncontrolled environment such as an attic or basement.
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Preserving old Newspapers
I have several newspapers from the early 20th century documenting events in the history of the United States. They have discolored and tear easily. How can I preserve them for my children?

Newspapers produced in the 20th century are printed on papers composed of wood pulp. Wood pulp papers have inherent problems including a high lignin content that causes discoloration and short fiber length that makes the paper weak. Exposure to light, improper handling and poor storage can increase the rate of deterioration. To preserve them interleave newspaper with a buffered archival paper, place them in an archival paper folder and then in an archival paper box that is slightly larger than the outer dimensions of the newspaper. These materials can be purchased through archival supply catalogs. The box should be stored in a room that is dark and dry, but not an attic or basement. For more information see Conserve O Gram 19/24 How to Preserve Acidic Wood Pulp Paper
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Caring for Color Photos
I have several wedding photographs hanging in my home. They have only been on display for a few years, but the colors are noticeably faded. I really wish to continue displaying them. What can I do?

Color photographs are very susceptible to fading especially from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. This fading cannot be reversed so it is always better to display a copy than the original. Originals can be scanned to create a digital image; fading can be corrected with imaging software. The original can then be stored in an archival enclosure inside a good quality box in a cool, dry, dark space. If you still wish to display an original photograph hang it in an area of your home like a hallway that receives little or no direct light. Also consider replacing the glass in the framing package with UV-filtering Plexiglas that can be purchased from your local framer.
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Caring for Silver
I just inherited my grandmother's silver tea service.
How do I clean it and keep it from tarnishing?

Objects made of silver or silver plate tarnish when silver metal reacts chemically with sulfur compounds in the air. Dirty and lightly tarnished silver can be wiped with a silver cleaning cloth available from supermarkets or hardware stores. Heavily tarnished objects, with intricate decoration, should be cleaned using a thin paste of a gentle abrasive (such as chalk) and alcohol, which you can make at home, or a commercial silver dip. Once cleaned, objects should be wrapped in neutral pH tissue paper and stored in a sealed plastic freezer bag or a silver cloth bag available from a jewelry store.
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