Thursday, April 28, 2016

Tips for Preservation Week: Discovering 'Gold' Behind the Frames

Conservation and care of historical documents often reveal surprises. Recently our conservation lab staff members were working with photographs from the J. Percy Priest Collection when they made an interesting discovery. When they opened the frame on an image of Percy Priest, Harry Truman and others in a group setting, they were surprised to see that underneath was a signed portrait of President Harry S. Truman with kind remarks to Mr. Priest.

In conservation work, it is a standard practice to remove photographs from frames and store them in proper archival containers. This helps reduce fading from light sources. It also helps protect the images from dust and other harmful materials. Quality archival storage should include acid-free photo sleeves, archival boxes and the best constant environment possible. This works to keep historic photos, documents, and other items lasting well into the future. To read more about caring for historic photos see:

Finding Harry S. Truman in the back of a picture frame was a pleasant surprise. Finding a locket of hair behind a Civil War soldier’s tintype photograph was another pleasant surprirse. Not-so-pleasant surprises have included bugs and dead mice that have become squashed behind framed items. So far, we've found no money or undiscovered copies of the Declaration of Independence.

Framed items of places and events usually are faded after many years of display. Archivists make every effort to stop the deterioration by providing proper storage. That requires the items to be removed from their frames.

Acidic cardboard backing like this example from the late 1940s needs to be removed to stop harmful chemical migration to the photographs.

Then pleasant surprises sometimes turn up hidden behind picture frames. In this case, the signed portrait of President Harry Truman.

Proper archival storage for photos includes acid-free, lignin free, and sulfite free paper envelopes. If the items will be heavily used, then proper mylar clear sleeves can be used. Digital images or copies can also be used for display and to reduce the handling of the original items.

This year, librarians, archivists, and conservators throughout the nation will observe Preservation Week on April 24 - April 30. For more information, visit:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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