Archival Preservation: Titanic Collections (& Everything Else!)
(Please Note: As mentioned above, while this entire fully-illustrated blog is centered on Titanic-related artifacts, ephemera and collectibles, all of the information on archival storage & presentation found here can be applied to practically ANY other type of collection YOU may have. Simply follow the suggestions below as described for Titanic-related objects and apply them to your own collections or fields of interest.)
You know what’s oddly funny in a scary sort of way? Many of the younger generation don’t know that the Titanic disaster ACTUALLY HAPPENED! They think that it was only a movie.
Well, us “older” folks (I’m 58 as I write this) know what’s what when it comes to history and such, and many of us collect Titanic-related artifacts. So let’s take a few minutes and look at a tiny fraction of what’s out there in terms of Titanic memorabilia and collectibles – then & now – and discuss how to archivally preserve them (or whatever else is in YOUR collection).
When one scratches the surface and begins to look a little deeper past “The Movie,” one quickly realizes that there is in fact a world-wide fascination with the Titanic tragedy, and has been since it sank. All one has to do is Google “Titanic” and a grajillion websites pop up – 98+ million at the time of this writing, to be exact – everything from the official Titanic Historical Society (go there, it’s cool), to people selling Titanic-related collectibles, trinkets and ephemera on e-Bay such as vintage objects & artifacts from the period, contemporary models, replica posters & menus, DVDs, books, wine-stoppers, dolls, watches, t-shirts, collector plates, pins, bottle openers, even toothpaste and a board game! The list seems truly endless.
Yet I digress, so let’s get right to it, shall we? As mentioned above, I’ve been interested in the lore surrounding the Titanic ever since I was a kid. My old man had me watch a movie entitled A Night to Remember (1958) on TV back in the 1960s, and from there I was hooked. I sought out the classic book of the same name written by Walter Lord in 1955 – upon which the movie was based – and Lord’s narrative of the events leading up to, during, and after that fateful night the Titanic sank was absolutely fascinating. From there I looked around used book stores during the 1970s (long before eBay) for other titles related to the disaster and found these, among others:
These are cool books, but kinda falling apart here and there. Now that I’m writing elaborate blogs on archival care and preservation of art / photographs / family artifacts / & collectibles (please click here to check them out), I figured I would combine ALL of these topics and run with something I – and a huge swath of the rest of the world – have been interested in for decades, starting with books like these.
Maybe you are just as interested as I am in this particular topic, and maybe not. If not, however, just take all the professional advice mentioned here and apply it to YOUR OWN collections or family heirlooms, whatever they may be.
And with that, let’s set sail (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).
Archival Preservation: Titanic Books
Since my initial interest was piqued by books, let’s start with them – Titanic in MY case / anything else in YOURS.
While this book sat on a shelf in all my different homes and apartments over the years, it’s now time to start seriously considering its future. To insure that it survives the coming decades (and centuries!) in as good a condition as possible I’m going to store it in archivally sound ways that will STILL make access to it quick and easy.
The first thing I’m going to do is check it for mold or mildew. Fortunately, this book is free of both, but if YOUR books have either of these problems then it might be time to consult a professional conservator (please see our full blog on Conservators / Pros You Should Know).
Next, I am going to gently brush off any exterior dust with a clean, soft, dry(!) cloth before I place it in an archivally-safe polyethylene bag. This will prevent any surface dust from abrading the cover of the book in storage and transport. Please notice that this bag is NOT sealed closed, as books need to “breathe” a bit and folding over the top flap of this archival bag is all I need to do.
Placing your books in safe polyethylene bags protects them from dust and the everyday environmental pollutants found in homes. It can also serve as a water barrier just in case your book gets a bit wet from leaky pipes and such, but more on that below (should your books actually get wet, please see our full blog on Saving Wet and Water Damaged Books).
The next thing I did was place my bagged book in an acid-free box such as the metal edge drop front box pictured above. These come in a variety of sizes, depths & colors (tan / black / white) to match any need, and any taste or decor. While I chose an 8 x 10″ box to store this book by itself, larger / deeper boxes are also available and I’ve used a couple of these to store a number of my other Titanic books in the same box.
Boom! I’m done (well, almost).
The last thing I need to do is to make sure I store these books – and all the rest of my collection – in a safe place. This usually means in my “living space” in my home and NOT in the attic or basement. Attics and basements are susceptible to wide fluctuations in temperature and humidity – neither of which are good for the archival preservation of books or ANY OTHER sort of collectibles or family heirlooms. I also want to have these books handy so that I can check ’em out every once in a while = keeping them close at hand on a shelf or in a dark closet.
While we’re on the subject, attics are also susceptible to leaky roofs, while basement storage can pose the threat of leaky pipes and water heaters or, worse yet – flooding. How ironic would it be if my cherished Titanic books themselves drowned in a flooded basement. For more first-person insights on water damage, please check out our full blog on Archival Disasters/ Our Horror Story Contest “Winners” to see just what kind of damage water can do. Or watch the Titanic movie. Same deal.
Archival Preservation: Titanic Postcards
The next artifact from the period (NOT a recent repro) that I’m gonna archivally preserve is the postcard pictured above. There were hundreds if not thousands of different Titanic-themed postcards created shortly after the disaster. These can be found on eBay and are also available from many large online postcard vendors such as oldpostcards.com, where I purchased this one last week for use in a book I am currently writing on a different subject (shout out to Alan who runs the oldpostcards.com website and its inventory of over 2 million postcards – just how he keeps it all straight I haven’t a clue – as Alan helped me out a lot with this recent acquisition).
There are a number of different ways to safely and archivally store postcards, and each offers instant accessibility. What I’m doing with this particular artifact is placing it in a postcard-sized polyethylene bag, just as I did for my books (see pix above). This arrangement will allow me to see both sides of the postcard, and help protect it from dust, dirt, moisture, and the naturally-occuring oils often present on hands and fingers (always wash your hands with normal soap and water before handling YOUR collections – whatever they are).
As mentioned, there are many different sizes and configurations of metal edge boxes, and the one pictured above is perfectly sized for postcard storage. Here you can get a sense of everything I needed in order to get my collection of postcards organized and safely stored, clockwise from the top:
1) an acid-free 4 x 6″ short top box
2) acid-free index cards that come pre-scored for ease of use
3) archival postcard-sized polyethylene bags
4) my new Titanic postcard
5) some random postcard pix of some random family in a fake car that I randomly
picked up in a random antique shop just cuz I liked it, in a random sort of way
For more information on safely storing postcards please see our complete blog on Postcards: Family History and Archival Care from our larger American Family Archives series of illustrated – and often pretty funny! – recent blogs.
While I’m a “each postcard in its own polyethylene bag” type of guy, some people may wish to store their collections in archival 3-ring binders (more on that later). To do so, ALWAYS choose 3-ring binder pages made from an archivally safe material such as the polypropylene page in the pix above. Cheap vinyl pages (you know, the ones with that horrible “plastic” stink) can do more harm than good via the “outgassing” of damaging plasticizers used in their manufacture. Versatile polypropylene pages, on the other hand, will keep your collection clean, safe & organized, and will also allow you to see both sides of each postcard.
Archival Preservation: Titanic Ephemera
This reproduction “boarding pass” was actually a ticket given out to people who visited one of the number of Titanic exhibitions that have been touring around the country and around the world. This particular ticket was kept as a memento by a friend of mine named John Farnham, who went to see the show with his daughter. More on that soon, as one of his relatives was on board the Titanic that fateful night – and survived. Thanks, John, for the loan of this artifact for this blog (Titanic collectors are a generous sort).
Let’s veer away from “authentic, genuine, period” artifacts – like the book and postcard we’ve just discussed – and take a moment to archivally store reproductions of stuff (see pix above), as these can also be cool parts of a Titanic collection.
BTW, while we’re on the subject, “veering away” is an important aspect of the Titanic disaster, as had they done so sooner you never would have heard about that ship (i.e. no collision = no story here folks, move along), or had they not tried to veer at all they would have hit the berg head-on. While perhaps many people would have been seriously injured or killed in a head-on collision with an iceberg while clipping along at 20-ish knots (that’s fast, especially for a vessel of that size), the ship would not have sunk. That’s a true fact, folks.
As with the postcard discussed above, different or odd-sized pieces in one’s collection can often find a safe home in the variety of polypropylene page formats that are available. Again the key points here are:
• safe, relatively inexpensive archival protection
• easy access to both sides of the object or document
• quick organization of even large collections
Once my postcards (left-hand page in pix of open binder above) and other paper collectibles (right-hand page in the same pix) are safely and conveniently stored in polypropylene pages, it’s time to place them in a binder. Not just ANY binder though, folks. The cheap binders one of oftens finds in office supply stores are usually NOT archival quality. Again, the outgassing of fumes from the cheap glues and plastics used to create such binders can damage my (YOUR) collections over time.
Instead, I’ve gone with an archival, museum-quality 3-ring binder that I can trust long-term (see pix on the right). These are also available with slipcases that offer another layer of protection from dust, household pollutants and moisture. Available in a range of colors, they look killer great on my bookshelf. I like the black (fitting for the Titanic disaster) and the red (no comment).
Another option for storing paper collectibles and ephemera is to place them in either correctly-sized polyethylene bags or in acid-free open end envelopes – or BOTH. As an example of this, the boarding pass was placed in a polyethylene bag and then that was placed in an acid-free envelope (see pix on the top left). Hey, ya can’t be too careful, folks.
Yet another way to organize the collection involves placing the bagged artifact in an acid-free file folder (see pix on the top right). Once safely tucked away – with TWO layers of archival protection: the bag and the folder – I’m storing files like these in acid-free document boxes (see bottom pix) for yet a THIRD layer of protection. Boom!
Archival Preservation: Titanic Ads & Prints
OK, now it’s back to the “real thing,” folks. The pix above shows a vintage ad for Vinolia Otto Toilet Soap that I had picked up decades ago at some antique shop somewhere. It’s the real deal, and dates from April 20th, 1912. While the Titanic sank on the night of April 14-15 of that year, the issue of The Illustrated London News in which this ad appeared had already been “put to bed,” as they say, before the disaster. Oops.
Anyway, I had this ad “professionally” matted at a frame shop back in the 1970s and have regretted that decision ever since. You see, folks, those jokers didn’t know half of what they should have with regard to archival matting and framing (see pix below).
Yup, those dopes did a number of things wrong (don’t let any of this happen to YOU!):
First, they DRY MOUNTED the ad. Never, ever (ever!!!) mount your important artifacts in any way that isn’t “reversible” – meaning easily removed leaving NO residue behind – which dry mounting decidedly ISN’T! For more info and an explanation of archival / reversible mounting please see our fully illustrated blog on Mounting Your Artwork. You can also watch a short video on the subject here.
Next, they mounted this original ad to a backing board that was significantly smaller than the front window mat (see this size discrepancy in the pix above). Not only that, but they used some random out-cut (i.e. scrap mat board from someone else’s mat job that was just lying around) for this backing board. To call them clowns would be an insult to clowns.
Next, this too-small backing board that the ad is directly adhered to is undoubtedly NOT acid-free, which I can ascertain from the tell-tale yellowing of the edge of the backing board pictured above. For a full description of “acid-free” and all it means please see our Archival Definitions: Acid-Free / Buffered / Unbuffered blog.
Lastly – as if all the above wasn’t enough – they stuck the outer window mat to the acid-rich backing board that holds the ad with some sort of mystery adhesive.
In short, this was a terribly bad job, done badly.
The best I can do is send the whole shebang out to a trained conservator and have it all disassembled, the dry mounted print removed from its current backing, and then put the whole thing back together again correctly myself (please see our illustrated blog on Conservators: Pros You Should Know). That might be pricy, folks, so I have it live with it for now.
It breaks my heart, as I have since learned a lot about how to do things well when it comes to archival procedures. It’s so easy to do it right, as I’ll explain below, so why would ANYONE do it “wrong,” especially in a “professional” frame shop. It boggles the mind.
The lesson here?
Do it right – do it yourself!
Anywaaaaaay, with THAT out of my system, the pix above shows how I am dealing with this sentimentally valuable (I picked it up very early in my Titanic collecting days) and possibly monetarily valuable piece of Titanic history (hey, this thing is truly vintage, and it’s famous because a copy was reproduced in Walter Lord’s seminal book A Night to Remember).
This print, in its bad mat (sigh!), is still worth preserving and has now been placed in an archival / re-sealable crystal clear bag. The white material behind it in the pix above is a sheet of acid-free 2-ply museum board that I placed in the bag to add structural support to the entire package.
The whole thing was then placed in an acid-free metal edge drop front box. You can see the way the “drop front” works on the far-right side of this box: it folds down to allow me to remove the print without having to “dig it out of the box” and possibly damaging it. It’s an ingeniously simple yet quite efficient design, actually.
Once I have had the print removed from its crappy backing board – soon I hope – I intend to select a new acid-free mat in a color that best suits the actual piece. An archival mat board sample kit like that pictured above will allow me to do this quite easily, and also includes samples of a couple of acid-free backing boards that will best fit my needs.
When I’ve decided on what type of mat board is right for me, all I have to do is order a custom-cut mat and the whole thing is delivered to my door, hinged and ready to go (please click here for our 6-part series of illustrated blogs on Matting).
With the (hopefully soon) removed print and a new mat custom-cut to the exact size I need, the whole thing is then going into a metal frame kit that I can assemble myself with a sheet of UV-filtering glazing to protect the print from the harmful effects of light, which can fade materials over time (please see our full blog on Light Damage: Protecting Your Collections from Harm).
No more freakin’ frame shops for me, I’ll tell you THAT!
The final takeaway: do-it-yourself ease + museum-quality archival materials + saving $$$ = peace of mind, and a nice addition to my collection.
Archival Preservation: Titanic Newspapers & Clippings
OK, so one of the holes in my Titanic collection is newspapers. There were some great ones out there, many from the days / weeks / months / and even years after the disaster. These include blazing headlines soon after the disaster; details of the immediate aftermath; reports on the drowned and the saved; news of the British and American inquests; all the way up to Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreck in 1985; the centenary of the sinking in April of 2012; the rediscovery and sale of Wallace Hartley’s violin, and beyond.
If YOU have a collection of such things, consider keeping them in the all-in-one newspaper and magazine storage kit pictured above. It comes in 4 different sizes, and each includes an acid-free drop front box / 10 archival polyethylene bags / and a reusable desiccant canister to keep humidity in check.
High humidity is a real danger, folks, as the inherent acids in newsprint become more active in humid conditions. If you haven’t already done so, please see our blog on Archival Definitions: Acid-Free / Buffered / Unbuffered for more info.
Archival Preservation: Titanic 3-Dimensional Artifacts
While I don’t have Wallace Hartley’s violin (at least not a REAL one), I do have some other 3-dimensional artifacts in my collection. For the sake of brevity I’m going to focus my attention on a small contemporary model of the Titanic – the one I put at peril in the ice cube-filled bucket at the top of this blog. Valuable? Not by a longshot, but it’s still cool to have floating around my house (no pun intended), and sometimes it’s the seemingly insignificant stuff that makes up a large part of anyone’s treasured collection.
So, let’s say – for the sake of this blog – that I want to archivally store this object (and you can substitute YOUR OWN stuff and follow the same suggestions).
There are a couple of things I can do.
Remember how I mentioned that metal edge boxes come in all sorts of sizes? Well, here’s one of ’em. It’s actually a 12″ long box for storing 35mm slides, but it also works well for other longitudinal artifacts such as this 8″ model of the Titanic. It’s shown here with the model just plunked down inside it without any cushioning material so you can see how the next steps work.
I’m starting with a sheet of acid-free archival tissue, and carefully wrapping the ship in as many layers as I think might be necessary.
With the wrapped ship in its box, I can then add additional crumpled or folded sheets of archival tissue until I feel secure about its safety.
This is the same concept, only instead of using sheets of archival tissue I’ve surrounded the ship with shredded archival tissue. More would go on top before I close the box, but you get the idea.
Lastly, when all is said and done, here is my well-packed Titanic ship model, ready for long-term archival storage or moving. Well, THAT was easy, and you can easily repeat the steps above for whatever YOU collect. There is probably a museum-quality archival box just right for your needs, so go for it! For more information, please see our blog on Archival Storage Boxes / Part 2 / Object and Artifact Storage.
Archival Preservation: Titanic DVDs
Let’s face it, perhaps you’re like most people and the ONLY thing you have that is even remotely related to one of the greatest and most fascinating tragedies of the 20th century is some DVD of some film some guy made about some woman and some guy and some boat and maybe some water or some ice or something like that, ya can’t quite remember (even though it was, in fact, a night to remember – with apologies to Walter Lord).
Well, believe it or not there are in fact a number of ways to correctly store media such as DVDs, video tapes and such. Pictured above is an Accent CD / DVD storage box, which I’m using to hold the half-dozen Titanic-related DVDs I have. While perhaps not exactly rare or valuable, these DVDs ARE part of the larger collection and therefore benefit from the same sort of archival care I’m exercising with more valuable stuff. To see more media storage options please click here.
Archival Preservation: Titanic’s Reach Into the Present
In closing, all of the archival solutions for storing my collection of Titanic-related stuff have centered on two general areas: either vintage materials from the period such as postcards, books & advertisements; or on more contemporary materials such as that small ship model, the ephemera that came with the new Smithsonian package I purchased recently, and my DVD of “The Movie.”
Not to get all philosophical about it, but in each case these objects and artifacts have a somewhat “removed” or “distanced” character associated with them:
• the antique artifacts are removed from the actual events of 1912 by over a century
• the more contemporary materials are removed from the personal passions that ran through
the culture and society of post-disaster 1912 for the same reasons
Where this is NOT the case – where the “personal” and the “immediate” become important once again – is when the events that transpired on that cold April night so many years ago reach across the decades and touch us in the here-and-now, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Now, what do I mean by this?
Well, just as important as any valuable period artifact one might find at auction or on eBay, is this:
So just what’s the story here?
Remember John Farnham, my friend who loaned me the “boarding pass” from the Titanic exhibition? Well, he found out I was going to write this blog during an unrelated meeting when I asked – pretty nonchalantly – if anyone at that meting had a copy of James Cameron’s Titanic movie I could borrow for the photo shoot (my copy was elsewhere just then, but I found it in time for the shoot). John piped up that he indeed did have a copy, and then went on to tell me about the Titanic exhibition he and his daughter had attended, from which he got the boarding pass illustrated in this blog.
It then turned out that one of John’s direct family relatives, Alice May Leader (née Farnham, 1862-1944), was on board the Titanic that fateful night, and was one of the few who were saved the following morning by the Cunard steamship Carpathia under the command of Captain Arthur Rostron.
The snapshot above is of John Farnham’s daughter at Dr. Alice Farnham Leader’s grave in Attica, NY (yes, Alice was a doctor – somewhat rare in those days). This personal family snapshot, therefore, ABSOLUTELY deserves the same level of archival care given to any other artifact described in this blog!
The point I’m making here is that when you come right down to it, the Titanic disaster wasn’t about the SHIP, it was about the PEOPLE – the families and friends who either lost their lives, or who survived and went on to create new post-disaster lives for themselves. It is always wondrous when the lives of survivors cross paths with those living today, as seen in this photograph.
(Please click on each image for more information.)
Are there archival solutions for preserving family snapshots like John Farnham’s? Or 35mm slides? Or heirloom fabrics?
Or old family letters? Or just about anything else? You bet there are! (Please click here to see all of these illustrated blogs).
Put another way, the unassuming snapshot of John Farnham’s daughter at a Titanic survivor’s grave – a survivor who was in fact a relative and shared her maiden name with John and his family – is just as important, sentimentally if not monetarily, as any other Titanic-related artifact out there.
Considered in this light, then, I’ll close with the apt title of Walter Lord’s follow-up book to A Night to Remember, as figuratively represented in John Farnham’s family snapshot …
… The Night Lives On.
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