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Are your photos stashed in a shoe box? Is that valuable tapestry nailed to your wall? You say you buried your time capsule in the back yard?
These are household sins of the highest order, according to Smithsonian Institution Senior Conservator Don Williams and writer Louisa Jaggar. Their new book, Saving Stuff: How to Care for and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions is something of a bible for the domestic archivist, with tips on how to save everything from finger paintings to baseball cards to antique furniture.
Jaggar could have used a book like this before the basement of her Glen Echo, Md., home flooded in February 2002. Icy waters from a midwinter thaw burst open the door and swallowed her cardboard storage boxes. Gone were her young son’s writings, her young daughter’s art, and Fuzzytail, a loveworn fox puppet from Jaggar’s own childhood.
“Only crap survived the flood—literally,” says Jaggar. “The only thing that wasn’t destroyed was the plastic litterbox.”
A week after the flood, Jaggar began to search for books on better ways to keep her family’s treasures. She found few resources, but she did come away with an idea for a book project.
Clearly, the 42-year-old Jaggar knew very little about the proper care of heirlooms and collectibles—but she knew where to find a co-author with such expertise: the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Materials Research and Education. That’s where she met Don Williams, a folksy 50-year-old who’s rarely seen without suspenders.
Williams is among the world’s foremost conservation authorities. When the National Air and Space Museum prepared for its first total restoration of the Wright Flyer, the museum’s preservation experts called in Williams, who normally works on furniture. “The irony was that the Wright brothers’ airplane…just looked like a beach chair gone bad when we took it apart,” Williams says with a laugh.
For all of Williams’ work as a scholar, educator, conservator, and consultant, he had not stopped to think that the general public had no idea how to keep its possessions and sentimental items in good condition. So when Jaggar approached him with the book idea, explaining that there was nothing like it in print, he was in.
Seven months later, they’d produced an encyclopedic collection of storage do’s and don’ts. Want to know the secrets of maintaining macaroni mosaics? The book suggests that you place the project inside a zippered plastic bag, lay it atop a bed of shredded photocopy paper, then entomb it inside a sturdy plastic container. Also handy are Williams’ “Ten Commandments for Keeping Your Paper Fresh” and his rules for preserving coins, stamps—and xylophones.
“People invent troubles for themselves by thinking careful preservation is beyond them,” Williams says. “A good basic rule to start: Just don’t do anything to your things that you wouldn’t do to your grandmother.”