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Salvage At A Glance Part III: Object Collections

Museum object collections typically contain both organic and inorganic materials. The type of material will determine treatment priority during water emergencies. Treat organic objects first because they are the most susceptible to damage by water. Inorganic objects such as glass, ceramics, and metals are more resistant to water damage, and brief periods of contact should not cause long-term damage. Some exceptions to this are iron, which will corrode quickly, and unfired or low-fired ceramics, which are porous. Separate these objects from those that do not require immediate attention.

Allow inorganic objects to air dry. However, objects damaged by saltwater should be kept wet in freshwater until a conservator determines appropriate treatment. As saltwater-soaked objects dry, salts can migrate to the surface and crystallize. This results in flaking or loss of the object surface.

When air-drying objects:
lay out objects to allow for even drying
raise objects off the ground or on tables with screens or pallets to allow air circulation
use fans to circulate air but be sure they do not blow directly on objects

Use caution when handling reconstructed objects because those mended with a water-soluble adhesive may become unstable.

Leather objects may require special attention while drying. Some leather objects are intended to be flexible (buckskin) while others are not (shields, fire buckets). Flexible leather may need to be manipulated while drying to retain its flexibility. Consult a conservator to determine appropriate procedures for leather materials.

Note: When salvaging collections it is imperative to keep labels and tags with objects so that identification information is not lost.

Organic Materials

Material Priority Handling Precautions Packing Method Drying Method
Bone & Ivory
Treat within 24 hours. Handle with care—wet objects may be fragile. Wrap individually in absorbent material. Air dry. Use fans.
Shell
Treat within 24 hours. Handle with care—wet objects may be fragile. Wrap individually in absorbent material. Air dry. Use fans.
Skin & Leather
Tanned Treat within 24 hours. Handle with care—wet leather is fragile. Pad with toweling to maintain shape and provide support. Air dry. Use fans.
Semi-tanned or Un-tanned Treat within 24 hours. Handle with care—may be fragile when wet. Pad with toweling to maintain shape and provide support. Air dry. Use fans.
Wood
Treat within 24 hours. Lift from bottom of object. Wrap in absorbent materials. Air dry slowly.
Basketry
Treat within 24 hours. Lift from bottom of object. Pad with toweling to maintain shape. Air dry slowly. Keep lids on.

Inorganic Materials

Material Priority Handling Precautions Packing Method Drying Method
Ceramics
Sun baked or Terracotta Treat within 24 hours to prevent disintegration and loss of surface. Watch for cracking or peeling. Blot dry—do not rub. Wrap with paper towels or other absorbent material. Air dry. Use fans.
Low-Fired Ceramics Treat within 48 hours. Watch for cracking or peeling. Pat dry—do not rub. Wrap with paper towels or other absorbent material. Air dry. Use fans.
High-Fired Ceramics Treat after less stable materials. If the surfaces are stable, blot with lint-free towels. Wrap with paper towels or other absorbent material. Air dry. Use fans.
Metal
Treat unstable (corroded) metals within 48 hours. Treat stable metal after less stable materials. Use gloves when handling. If the surfaces are stable, blot with lint-free towels. Wrap with absorbent materials. Pack copper alloys in individual containers with silica gel. Air dry. Use fans.
Stone
Treat after less stable materials. If object has smooth surface, blot. If surface is rough or has an applied finish, do not blot. Wrap with absorbent materials. Air dry. Use fans.
Glass
Treat after less stable materials. Pat dry, do not rub. Wrap with absorbent materials. Air dry. Use fans.

The Conserve O Gram series is published as a reference on collections management and curatorial issues. Mention of a product, a manufacturer, or a supplier by name in this publication does not constitute an endorsement of that product or supplier by the National Park Service. Sources named are not all inclusive. It is suggested that readers also seek alternative product and vendor information in order to assess the full range of available supplies and equipment.

The series is distributed to all NPS units and is available to non-NPS institutions and interested individuals on line at . For further information and guidance concerning any of the topics or procedures addressed in the series, contact NPS Museum Management Program, 1849 C Street NW (2265), Washington, DC 20240; (202) 354-2000.

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3 Responses to Managing Collections After a Disaster

  1. […] Conserve O Grams – Information on the protection and recovery of damaged books, papers, photographs, textiles, and other cultural objects. […]

  2. pat stark says:

    What should I do with a painting [I THINK acrylic] on cardboard . it was found in the muddy silt and is still quite damp. It is curled on 2 edges some. Thanks Pat – Hartford Hisotircal Sociey

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