Behind the Scenes at the DAM

At-Home Storage Tips from Museum Collections Managers

Did you know that about 90 percent of the Denver Art Museum’s collection is not on display at any given time? With all the exhibitions and gallery rotations, those works all get their chance to spend time in the public eye, but many of them are sensitive to light and must have lots of time to rest. The exhibitions and collections services staff spend their days making sure that those collections in storage are cared for and stored in ideal conditions.

One might think that would mean we on staff give our own memorabilia at home the same special time and attention, but just like you we have hidden treasures in our attics and basements that are in less than ideal storage conditions. I thought I would share the story of one such item and ask the DAM collections managers for a few tips for how we can all take better care of our own collections.

A member of our staff recently had the chance to help preserve one of her family’s important memories. Her grandfather was a member of the Brighton city baseball league in the 1920s. After finding a copy of a historic team photo, she learned that his uniform had been stored in a cardboard box in her aunt’s basement for decades. 

Upon examining the piece she found it to be in really good condition, although it was a bit dirty. The uniform’s sturdy wool fabric would stand up well to being cleaned with a vacuum cleaner so she used a rubber band to attach a small piece of screen material to the end of the hose to protect the embroidery and began to clean. The seams and creases of garments like this tend to be lodged with dirt and dust. 

An example of the tools used to clean a dusty garment. A soft brush is helpful for removing dust and dirt from creases and seams.
 

After cleaning, the uniform was padded with acid free tissue and placed in an archival box for storage. The family has been thrilled with the results and hopes to find a way to display the uniform soon.

This quilt has been folded due to its large size, but tissue padding the folds keeps the quilt from becoming creased over time.

In light of this story I asked Julie Brown, associate collections manager, if she could give some tips for taking on similar projects at home.

Sarah Cucinella-McDaniel: If you were going to give someone one tip about caring for their memorabilia at home what would it be?

Julie Brown: Don’t store anything in cardboard boxes. 

SCM: Attic or basement—is one better than the other from a preservation standpoint?

JB: Basement, because it’s cooler and the temperature fluctuates less. But keep things off the floor! If you are hanging anything in your house for display, be careful to avoid direct sunlight. Your items will fade very quickly if you leave them out. Over fireplaces and in bathrooms are also bad ideas. Anywhere temperature and humidity fluctuate, like near heating ducts, etc. should be avoided.

Boxes of paper objects and photos lined up on the shelves in one of DAM’s storage areas.

SCM: What are your thoughts on traditional storage methods like moth balls or cedar chests?

JB: A cedar chest is a more natural and safer way to preserve items. Plus it’s not carcinogenic like moth balls! When you take your clothes out you can air them much more effectively than with moth balls.

SCM: What other tips do you have? Are there materials you can recommend and where can I get them?

JB: The Container Store has them. Acid-free boxes and tissue are good. Take photos and paper out of cardboard and put them in acid free boxes or at least waterproof totes. If you can, place interleaving paper between them and place the photos or documents in acid free folders or Mylar sleeves. Cool, dry spaces where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate a lot are the best storage locations. Avoid direct sunlight.

A few of the types of boxes the DAM uses to store its collections.

Sarah Cucinella-McDaniel is the associate registrar in the exhibitions and collections services department at the Denver Art Museum. Sarah has been at the DAM since 2004 and her favorite exhibition that has been on view here is Gees Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt.