Conservation in the Real World: Part 2

In our last post, I shared a very inexpensive way to avoid using costly museum archival boxes.

Crumbling Paper: An Archivist’s Nightmare

Today, we’ll be talking about the materials used to wrap, pack, or support an object while it is in a box. It really is a big deal! It isn’t a good idea to wrap your treasured family heirlooms in newspaper. Why? That newsprint can really do some damage! You may want to support a treasured vase by using some paper towels or maybe some blocks of foam. You could, but please read this first.

The Dirty Sordid Details Found in Newspapers & Paper Towels

Newspaper, paper towels, many types of tissue paper, and almost all paper have an elevated level of acidity. It comes from the manufacturing process. It’s not the paper’s fault, it was born that way. This can be very bad for an object. Let’s say you have your mother’s wedding tiara to pack away, and you’d like it to last until your great grandchildren get married. It is a good idea to support the interior of the tiara. It’s also good to place it on a soft cushion of something. It’s also good to place material around the tiara to keep it from shifting around inside the box. Newspaper and tissue were the products of choice for our ancestors, but it would be a bad idea today.

First, the newspaper. The newspaper’s acid content would accelerate the oxidation of the metal. Even if the tiara has been coated to prevent tarnishing, the acid from the newspaper will eat away the coating. The metal could actually pit from corrosion. It’s more than tarnishing, it’s destruction. It can’t be polished away.

If it is an older style ink with metal in it (not uncommon not so long ago), the metal in the ink can react with the metal in the tiara, causing it to rapidly corrode. Bad news. If the tiara has a veil, then it will first become yellowed by contact with the newspaper, then eaten away. It won’t be eaten away entirely, but it will be yellowed with large holes in it.

Wood objects will become stained. Paper objects will yellow and crumble, plastics will decompose or chemically change. Sometimes, the printing on the newspaper can actually be permanently transferred onto an object. Nobody has time for that.

The tissue is just as bad. Non-archival tissue can be just as terrible in pH as newsprint, and can cause all the same conditions newspaper will cause. It is lightweight, and easy to work with. It is very tempting to reuse the colored tissue that was wrapped around your birthday present. Just avoid it.

Cloth offers no better options. You might think to rest this thing on a folded piece of cloth, to give it something soft to rest on. Even cloth can be a terrible idea. Synthetics and natural cloth both have problems, so just stay away. Wool is especially bad.

Foam has issues. Foam is another post entirely. I’ll put that up next week. Maybe you have some egg-crate foam from your camera case, and you’d like to use that! Seems safe enough really, but it isn’t. Very few foams can be considered archival. Most open-cell foam is very bad indeed. Polyurethane is the worst offender, as it can melt onto objects and almost become permanently joined with them. While there are exceptions, foams of any color should be avoided like the plague. This is bad too the extreme.

Archival tissue is inexpensive and safe.

The Plentiful Inexpensive, Safe Alternatives

Archival Tissue. Instead of wrapping or padding objects in newspaper, use archival tissue. It is softer than newsprint anyway, and is easier to use. It costs more than a newspaper would, but for $5.00 you can get enough acid-free tissue to wrap a number of objects. Archival tissue also works well as padding for the inside of an object, should you need to support the item’s structure in some way. Archival tissue is also good for filling the interior space of a container to prevent an object from moving around in the box. You can get 100 sheets on Amazon for $6.

Acid-free Copier Paper. Sometimes, you need to keep flat objects from touching each other. Actually, you always want to keep objects from touching each other, but sometimes there will be more than one object in a container. If they are 3D objects, use archival tissue to keep them apart. Photographs, documents, Christmas cards, and anything else that is flat can be separated by copier paper. Modern day reams of white paper are almost always acid-free, unless you have an old ream of 80’s typing paper on a shelf. You can easily – and safely – use this paper between your cherished photographs or other documents.

The Point… There is safe foam. Cloth can be ok, if it’s the right cloth. But this stuff has a cost, and sometimes that cost is very high. If you have to choose between a car payment and professional archival materials, we know what you will go for. We just hope this helps. If you need more help… well… you know where we are!