Helping others preserve their treasures


Most people have collections of some kind, which might include grandma's quilt, grandpa's gold pocket watch, great-grandma's fine china, mom's wedding dress, old photographs or other antiques. But if not well-preserved, one man's treasure can become another man's junk, and Melissa Heaver knows it.

As collections manager of the Historical Society of Baltimore County, Heaver offers workshops to teach people how to properly care for their family heirlooms. The workshops cover the care of wooden objects, decorative arts, textiles and paper products.

Heaver spent eight years at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum and for 13 years was the director of museum collections at the John and Neville Bryan National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is well-known for her talents in preservation and caring for museum collections, said Kristi Alexander, executive director of the historical society.

"Most everyone on the Eastern Seaboard in the museum business knows Melissa and her reputation," Alexander said. "She has a vast knowledge of preservation techniques. These workshops allow her to share it. She's created some housekeeping cleaning courses, and people write for grants to get her to come and do these workshops."

Heaver said she started the workshops because most museums don't have the resources to teach their staffs what she teaches them.

"I taught the people at the trust the same things I'll teach in these workshops," said Heaver. "But, most museums are understaffed or lack funding for special projects. They aren't putting their best foot forward in old historic houses. I try to teach them ways to save money and preserve their collections at the same time. I try to get them to use common products and easy-to-learn techniques."

Workshop participants are asked to bring one item they want to preserve. Heaver uses that item to teach them the tricks of the trade.

"Let's say someone has a plate from Grandma and there's a crack in it," said Heaver. "One of the first things I tell them is that the gold trim is put on the china after it has been fired. The gold wears off if it's placed in a microwave. In this situation, I tell the person they need to wash the plate [using] warm water and Ivory or some other soap without perfumes in it, and dry with a soft towel. They should never immerse the plate in water. The water worsens cracks, and the plate will break."

Heaver said everyone has paper products to preserve, and she has had a lot of experience with these items. She assists her husband and father-in-law at the fire museum they founded, working with them to develop and preserve photos from old negatives they found.

"We got lucky when we found the negatives because when photos are paper-based, the ink isn't permanent," said Heaver. "The negatives from photos are the best way to keep them, but prints can be preserved as well.

"Digital photos don't last, so I recommend people save them onto disk. We now have scanning, and that helps to save a lot of photos. You can enhance it and take out defects and bring out subjects and colors lost over time."

During one of her four-hour workshops Heaver gives instruction on preserving books. She said not everyone should attempt this project.

"The paper in old books gets brittle and crumbles over time," she said. "For original bindings, I suggest people make an acid- free book box from cardboard. They can close it with Velcro buttons and use cotton twine to hold it together."

Heaver also teaches preservation of textiles, most commonly wedding dresses.

"The big thing people want to preserve is old wedding dresses," said Heaver. "Too often people wash these old dresses in a washing machine or they take it and have it stored in a wedding box at a dry cleaners. This doesn't work. They have to pack the dress in acid-free materials. They have to fold it in different places so the dress doesn't get permanent creases. They need to put tissue in the sleeves to keep them from going flat. They should stuff the dress with so much tissue it almost looks as though someone is wearing it."

In another of her workshops, Heaver offers inexpensive remedies and cleaning solutions for caring for furniture or wood pieces.

"The first rule of furniture repair is don't repair it with super glue," said Heaver. "The repair should never be stronger than the material. If you use hide glue, the repair is reversible. You always want to have the option of reversing repairs."

Another tip: Don't use furniture polish to clean wood.

"People love to spray their wood with Pledge and other types of furniture sprays," said Heaver. "The best thing to use is Butcher's Bowling Alley Wax or brown shoe polish, depending on the color of the wood."

As for dust, Heaver said use magnetic cloths. "These cloths are expensive but worth it when you're cleaning," said Heaver. "They have been magnetized and they attract dust."

In addition to cleaning and preservation tips, each person who attends the workshops will receive a written list of resources.

"It's my hope that people leave knowing what to do to keep their treasures," said Heaver. " ... They have to be comfortable with what they're doing or I recommend they have someone else do the work."


Sept. 10: Textiles (rugs, clothing, quilts)

Dec. 3: Paper (books, maps, photographs, prints, marriage certificates)

Reservations are required for all workshops. Contact HSBC at or 410-666-1878. A fee will be charged for each workshop.

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