Is your collection decaying?

A few easy steps to insure the longevity of your relics

As collectors, we have an implied responsibility to make an effort to preserve the historic artifacts we cherish. That sounds heavy-handed and a tall order, but honestly, there are a number of simple steps that will insure our relics will exist for several generations.

The Bad News: It’s all decaying

It is a cruel reality: All of our relics are decaying—some faster than others, but they are ALL decomposing.  Because we collect a variety of items ranging from bronze medals on silk ribbons to firearms built of steel with wooden stocks and leather slings, there isn’t one set of rules governing how to care for all items. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t take certain steps to preserve them!

It doesn’t matter if it is a solid 10 lb. cannon shot or a delicate silver wire embroidered. Just like our own flesh and blood, everything is declining. The worst perpetrator of the demise is something we just can’t live without—oxygen.

All relics would last the longest if they could be kept in a vacuum.  But anyone who has watched an outer space-thriller movie in which the villain is catapulted from the stabilized space capsule into the dark void of space knows… humans don’t last long in a vacuum! Apart from living in an oxygen-free  environment, the option of owning and enjoying a collection of historic military relics that won’t decay isn’t really an option. The next best thing is to slow down the decay.

The Good News: You Can Retard the Decay

Before we make steps to prevent the decay of our collections, we are just going to have to accept that oxygen is going to be a part of any preservation formula. We can’t stop the decay, but we sure can slow it down!

Whether you collect swords, cannons, uniforms, photographs, medals, helmets, firearms, documents or anything else, controlling the environment where the items are stored or displayed is the single most important thing you can do to guarantee slowing down any decay. Here are six easy steps any collector can follow that will help retard any collection deterioration.

1. Keep it dry

Next to oxygen, moisture is probably the next most destructive ingredient of artifact decline. Keeping items out of standing water is probably obvious to most, but did you know the lack of water can be just as harmful to some items like leather or wood? Controlling the humidity of our collection storage is something that each of us should be able to easily accomplish.

A simple rule of thumb to follow regarding humidity and temperature for most artifacts is this: If it feels uncomfortable to you (too hot, too cold, too dry or too humid), it probably is not the best environment for your collection. It does take a “climatically controlled museum environment” to store artifacts… usually it requires a decent furnace and air conditioner along with a dehumidifier or humidifier. No fancy hydrographs are necessary… simply walk into the room and ask yourself how it feels. Make the adjustment so that it feels comfortable to you. If it feels good to you, it is probably pretty good for your collection as well.

Unfortunately, that rules out some favorite storage spots for a lot of collectors: Attics (too cold or too hot) or basements (too humid or too dry). It also should be obvious that garages, sheds, outbuildings with no heating system are all less than ideal. It does point to spare rooms and closets, however, as likely storage points that enjoy the same environment as you.

2. Don’t feed the pests

Directly related to where you store your collection is limiting the access to rodents or bugs. I have seen spectacular collections of uniforms destroyed beyond saving because of these pests. But also think of what they can do the wooden stocks of weapons, the leather of accouterments or even the upholstery and wiring of military vehicles. Rodents and bugs are a force that must not be ignored.

Again, where you store your items is important. When the bugs and mice are tired of looking for your leftover pizza on the counter, they are going to look for the next best thing: that riker mount of Third Reich breast eagles or that stack of cloth-covered canteens. Now assuming you don’t live in the squalor that attracts Ben-led packs of rats or an apocalyptic swarm of ants, you might want to just make sure you don’t store your relics in areas where these destructors won’t easily discover them: The attic, the basement, the garage or in outbuildings. Again, somewhere in your normal living space is best.

I will add, however, in my personal experience as a uniform collector, periodic unpacking of boxes and inspection is crucial to identify problems before they become a pile of rat droppings in lint. Packing a collection in boxes and storing them for 20 years is almost a guarantee that you will discover something bad when someone finally opens them (bear in mind… you are decaying too. There’s no guarantee you will be the one opening these boxes!)

3. Avoid acids.

This brings us to the next practical step of preservation: Packing materials. Over the last several years, I have handled the collections of dozens of guys and have witnessed some of the oddest notions of preservation that back-fired horribly. First, the packing materials themselves. OK, maybe 30 years ago, people thought that the term “acid-free” was just a fancy expression made up to scare people. Well, acid IS in the stuff and it DOES decay. Did you save newspapers from the Apollo space launches? Notice who they have turned brown and brittle? That’s acid decay. Now imagine if you used those newspapers to wrap your collection. You are spreading that acid decay to whatever you wrap in it.

Cardboard boxes? Worse than newspapers! Cardboard is extremely acidic. Those acids migrate to whatever is stored in the box. So before you think about wrapping that pristine 29th Division painted M1 helmet in newspaper and storing in a cardboard box, try to remember the appearance of those Apollo space landing newspapers. They aren’t that old and they have decayed extremely fast. The newsprint used today is even more acidic than the paper used in the 1970s.

Fortunately, there is an inexpensive solution. Acid-free boxes are readily available for purchase. If you can’t search on a computer, call your local museum and inquire. White tissue paper (the stuff used to stuff Christmas boxes) is nearly acidic-neutral and very inexpensive. Throw out the newspapers and buy yourself some packages of white tissue paper. If you don’t want to go the acid-free route, rubber tubs are a reasonable alternative. Whereas they will keep out moisture, bugs and rodents, they are not the best alternative. Rubber tubs are not made of natural “rubber,” but rather, petroleum by-products. They will “off-gas” chemicals that will affect anything stored within. This off-gassing is minimal, though. A good street-check is to take off the lid and breathe in deep. If you smell chemicals, that is a good indicator of what will be entering anything stored inside the box. Again, if it makes you feel uncomfortable, it will make your relics feel uncomfortable as well!

Though the acids in paper and wood are some of the most commonly encountered—and most destructive—forms of acids, there is one other source that you control: You. The acids that your naturally secrete can be very destructive. This is why you see curators in museums or consultants on Road Show wearing white gloves. The white cotton gloves absorb the acids of the hands before they are transmitted to the objects. While most curatorial types will wear gloves when handling all artifacts, some are more forgiving than others. I would strongly recommend wearing gloves when handling swords, knives, medals, paper, medals or other objects that will quickly reveal evidence of human touch. Objects made of ceramic or glass are more forgiving when it comes to human contact. But for the price of a dozen white gloves (around $15), you can prevent premature decay and look really cool at the same time.

4. Dim the Lights

For almost everything a military history enthusiast collects, light is a culprit that robs artifacts of years of preservation. There is a reason the best museums are usually dimly lit. Light—in particular, UV-rays—can fade colors and dry materials whether made of paper, cloth, wood  or leather. While it may look very impressive to put your General Patton uniform under bright spotlights, the heat and intensity of the UV rays will fade that OD jacket to a light tan over time.

You don’t need to keep your collection in a cave (it would be too cold and humid, anyway), but you can take a few easy steps to minimize the effect.

  • Turn the lights out when you aren’t in the room with the collection.
  • Don’t use spotlights to illuminate pieces for long stretches of time
  • Block windows with either curtains or some other form of covering. If this isn’t possible, install UV film to the glass (not that expensive… available from most framing stores, window suppliers or even your local museum).
  • Not a great remedy but a step in the right direction is replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent lights. These emit less heat and UV light than our good old (soon to disappear from the market) yellow light bulbs.

5. Avoid the Goop

Face it, if there was a “magic preservative,” it would be marketed for humans and not Civil War saddles! We have all seen the snake oil salesmen at the county fair promising rejuvenating qualities, but the truth of the matter is, the stuff only masks the natural decay. Steel, leather, paper, cloth… it’s all decaying. It’s just a matter of how fast. There are a lot of creams, lotions and oils sold that supposedly “preserve” artifacts. At best, they slow down the decay. At worse, they simply disguise the decay while actually accelerating it. The best thing you can do is to simply avoid any of these magic potions. Keep your stuff clean, dry, in moderate temperatures and dim lighting, and you will probably do more to preserve your artifacts than any of these so-called preservatives.

6. Inspect Your Collection

Wouldn’t looking at your collection from time to time be obvious? As much as each of us loves to discover new items, we love to store it away like squirrels stockpiling nuts for a long winter! Face it, with as much stuff as you have displayed in your “war room,” I am willing to bet there is just as much packed away somewhere. You will be surprised how much time passes from when you stored the stuff until the next time you see it.

The first step to correcting any problem is identifying it. To do that, you need to unpack those boxes, unload those closets and pull things out from under the bed. You will be surprised how much fun you will have rediscovering your collection, but also, you might identify some areas of potential damage.

Sure, protecting your collection might involve some extra effort and even some expense, but isn’t “preserving the history” what we are all about? If you apply just the six basic steps outlined above, the military relics you cherish will be available to generations beyond your years of ownership.

Preserve the History,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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