General Care and Storage of Collections

Disclaimer: I have a significant (8+ years) background in collections management, working in museums, primarily with works on paper, prints, and photographs. I no longer work professionally in that field. My recommendations here are based on my opinions and they reflect what I choose to do with my own collection. I am not responsible for your collection or what might happen with your collection. Got it?

Caring for and storing a collection can end up being almost as labor intensive and expensive as the collecting, itself. Some people, even collectors who should know better, will skimp on storage and care, in order to keep money for further collection. Of course, with private collections, this is purely the prerogative of the collector. But it is never a great idea to ignore the care of a collection, no matter what. It doesn’t have to be expensive, even simple things can significantly add to the quality of care and storage of objects.

Photos need to be kept away from light and moisture, and should be stored in closed boxes, to help shield the objects from rapid changes in temperature and humidity. Turning on your heater, air conditioner or swamp cooler; changes in weather; and any number of other factors can cause swings of air conditions that are highly detrimental to photographs. Such changes can cause paper to decay or mold, surfaces to crack, warp or discolor, or cause color to fade or tones to fade or shift. Sunlight, or indeed ANY light can cause fading and discoloration. Light is EM radiation, and EM radiation causes fading, discoloration and decay, no matter the source.

Also, photographs should be stored in acid-free conditions. Paper is delicate. Most paper used for printing photos will be made of wood pulp, and wood-derived papers inherently break down over time as the cellulose and other materials in the pulp break down chemically, producing acids. This means that photos stored together can be decaying against each other, causing chemical burns to the objects around them, as well as to themselves.  When storing photographs, in an acid-free box (available at most art supply stores), they should also be separated by acid free materials. This can be an acid free paper, or an appropriate plastic folder. Office supply sleeves and products do not count. Go online and search for fold lock sleeves or acid-free buffered archival paper.  I use an online company called Print File Archival Storage, but there are others. The Light Impressions company is explicitly not recommended.

Cloth items should never be “forced” to do something that they don’t want to do naturally. In the case of fezzes, this may mean keeping them in the storage state that they have been in previously, at least within reason. In an earlier era, fraternal fezzes were much less formal, they were kept rolled and stored in small bags or oval tubes. When you have pieces that have been stored in this manner for the past 80 years, it doesn’t make much sense to try to force them into the straight, geometric forms that fezzes worn today tend to have. Granted, the thick felt that these hats are made of hold up remarkably well compared to other types of cloth. The fact that felt is (usually) made of wool—animal hair—also contributes to its longevity. Store a fez in the shape and style that it naturally wants to be in. Older hats from the early 1900s stored in oval cardboard tubes should probably be kept outside of those tubes, as the tubes will be decaying and giving off acids which can certainly be slowly and surely damaging the hats inside. (But save those tubes, they are part of the history of the hat, and part of the object!)

The major enemy of fezzes is the moth. They need to be stored so as to keep fiber-eating insects away from them. Actually, the infamous moths lay eggs in cloth, especially in wool, and their larvae rear themselves on your hats, your sweaters, your grandma’s blanket. I keep my fezzes in watertight file storage bins, bought from the office supply store. I DON’T KNOW if the plastic in these bins are the best option for storing felt, probably not. But for now, I consider watertight to be bugtight, and I am more concerned with moths than with the possibility of chemical off-gassing. The bins are a polyester, and at least in the family of good storage materials.

It is highly recommended, however, that fezzes NOT be stored with traditional mothballs. Mothballs are toxic, awful, chemical things that are actually not good for textiles in the long run. Not as bad as being eaten by moths, I guess, but really not the solution. If you can’t get your pieces into a bugtight storage situation, at least get them into some sort of acid free storage and tightly tie off a layer or two of trash bags around it. Might not be perfect, but it will help. Say it with me: “No Moths!”

Medals and Ribbons.
Storing medals and ribbons counts as one of the “easy” ones. Metal objects don’t need as much particular care as paper or textiles. Metal objects aren’t susceptible to bugs (except for being impacted by their droppings, which can be corrosive). And ribbons tend to be made of materials, also, that aren’t commonly eaten by bugs. With these objects, just think about flatness and stability. I keep my medals and ribbons in sets of Rubbermaid (TM) or Sterlite (TM) “scrapbooking” drawers, which are drawers with snap-shut lids that slide in and out of a skeleton structure. One thing that metal objects are indeed sensitive to are air quality, just like your mom’s silver platters or whatnot. Keeping them in shut plastic boxes helps keep the circulation of air, which can be laden with pollution and other contaminants that can contribute to tarnishing, to a minimum.

Ribbons are the really delicate material in this class of object. They should be kept out of light, just like photographs, to evade fading. And they need to be treated with careful respect. Over time, the fibers of a fraternal ribbon will become frayed, stressed, or stretched. And as they get older they become increasingly fragile and stiff, which can seriously accelerate the damage done by general handling and so on. Keep them flat, keep them stable, keep them still.

I line my scrapbooking drawers with polyester batting, which cradles and holds medals and ribbons well, and I use pins (never pushed through a ribbon, only positioned through rings, chains, or other solid metal bits) to hold things in place. Have fun with it, create a display. When you pull out a drawer to show your friends, why not have it look great and stay that way?

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