Preserving objects

Objects held in archival collections may include:

  • sculptures, statues
  • large and small decorative or functional items – chandeliers, plaques, vases, jewellery, furniture, trophies, keys, seals, rubber stamps, dinnerware and typewriters
  • natural history objects – geological samples, anthropological collections and zoological specimens
  • textiles – stuffed toys, rugs, embroidered items, lace, tapestries, clothing and uniforms
  • scale models of ships, buildings, cars, and landscapes.

Objects are often composed of more than one material. For example: a clock case could be made of wood, contain the metal movement and have a glass cover. The clock case may also be varnished, painted or coloured in some manner.

Preservation and storage

All materials degrade over time. Some deteriorate because of their inherent properties, others as a result of poor storage or display conditions. We can't stop it but we can control how fast it happens.

  • Wood can crack and warp under different climatic conditions.
  • Textiles, fur and leather are susceptible to mould growth and insect attack in humid conditions.
  • Coloured textiles are subject to fading when exposed to light.
  • Plastics gradually become brittle as they lose their plasticisers and other additives.
  • Over time bone and ivory can become brittle and discolour.
  • Metals corrode as humidity rises.

When handling:

  • carry single items carefully, one at a time. 
  • Ask for assistance or use a trolley when moving large or heavy items.
  • Wear disposable nitrile gloves, or ensure your hands are clean and dry.

Gently clean objects only with a dry soft cloth or brush. If objects need repair or extensive cleaning seek professional advice through the Agency Service Centre.

Ensure that an object is free of dust and not affected by mould, insects or active corrosion before placing it in protective packaging. Affected items should be isolated from other objects. Seek advice on dealing with them through the Agency Service Centre.

Objects are often non-standard in size and shape, and require custom made packaging and storage shelving.

Here are some guidelines when packaging objects:

  • Wrap objects individually so they don't touch and damage each other.
  • Use suitable shock-absorbing packaging materials like acid-free tissue, archival foams or bubble pack. Do not use newspaper.
  • Do not write or stick things directly onto the object. Label the box clearly and if practical, tie a label onto the object with cotton tape.
  • Use archival boxes. These are available commercially in both standard and custom-made sizes.
  • Make sure the box is big enough to fully enclose the object with protective padding, but not so large that the object is free to move and be damaged.
  • If the object is too big to box, drape it with cotton dustsheets.
  • Objects should be transported in their protective packaging.

Textiles should be handled differently from most other objects. They should be laid out flat in a box and interleaved with archival, acid-free tissue paper. Folds in the textile should be padded out with a sausage-shaped roll of tissue. Take care not to crush textiles and remember that old textiles can be very fragile.

If specialised storage is available then temperatures between 18 to 20 °C at a relative humidity between 45 to 50 per cent are desirable. Office air-conditioning generally operates between 21 to 23 °C in temperate climates. If these conditions are stable then the natural deterioration of the objects can be moderated. Wide fluctuations in conditions can physically stress records and accelerate their deterioration. Note that air-conditioning systems often only operate during office hours, leading to a wider fluctuation of temperature and relative humidity at other times. At sustained relative humidities over about 65 per cent, mould growth can occur. It is recommended that you aim for a storage area with stable conditions, where the temperature is around 20 °C and the relative humidity remains below 60 per cent.

Materials degrade more quickly when exposed to light, especially ultraviolet (UV). Surprisingly, fluorescent tubes often emit a relatively high level of UV. Lighting should be turned on only when it is needed. Ideally, storage areas should have no windows. Where windows are present, they should be covered with opaque curtains or blinds.

Insects and rodents once attracted to a records storage area may start eating the records. To reduce the risk of infestation:

  • Do not eat in storage areas.
  • Keep surfaces (floors, tops of shelves) clean.
  • Bait regularly for rodents. Inspect for insects, but only fumigate if an infestation is found. 
  • Insect blunder traps can be used as monitors for localised insect infestation.

Storage equipment should be designed and set out to minimise damage to any items that are stored within it.

  • Store items off the floor in case of flood. Plinths or plastic pallets may be used to do this if the item will not fit into shelving.
  • Equipment should be made of coated metal. Wooden equipment should be avoided, as it can release harmful vapours, contribute to the spread of fire and may harbour insects.
  • Items should not be stored on the top of storage equipment. They will be too close to ceiling lights and there is also the possibility of water damage from fire sprinklers.
  • Aisles between equipment should allow for easy access to and removal of items.
  • Suitably sized tables should be located next to the storage cabinets, so that staff can comfortably and safely check the contents of boxes and drawers and retrieve individual items.

When objects are suitable for storage within drawers, the drawers should be clearly labelled with their contents so that items may be retrieved with a minimum of handling. To prevent damage to the objects when the drawers are opened and closed, the drawers should:

  • operate smoothly
  • have stops to prevent them from being pulled completely out when they are opened
  • have a lip at the front to prevent items from falling onto the floor and at the back to prevent items from falling behind the drawers
  • never be overfilled and ideally be only half-full or contain only one flat object, eg a textile object such as a dress.

Objects in archival collections are often unique and it can be difficult to produce facsimiles. Reference and evidentiary needs can often be satisfied with a good quality photographic image. Requirements for the safe display of objects vary with the composition of the object. Specialist advice should be sought before displaying objects of value.

Further advice

Contact the Agency Service Centre.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017