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SIOUX CITY | While cataloging and storing Sioux City's historical artifacts, Tom Munson, archives manager, follows the Hippocratic Oath -- "Do no harm," an oath historically taken by physicians.

Laminating photographs or marking the names of the people pictured on the glossy side in pen should be avoided at all costs, according to Munson. If you've done the latter, Munson has a solution, literally -- a cleaner called PEC-12 that removes ink. Next time, write the information on the back of the photograph using a pencil or Stabilo pen.

"Don't do anything that can't be undone. The most important part where that comes into play is with a lot of paper artifacts. People think that lamination is a good thing. Don't laminate something if you want to keep it for a long time," he cautioned. "If you've ever had a family photograph where somebody wrote the people's names above their heads or below them, that's done almost irreparable damage."

Museum preserving items

Tom Munson talks about care and storage of items during an interview at the Sioux City Public Museum in Sioux City, Iowa, Tuesday, December 3, 2017. (Jim Lee, Sioux City, Journal)

Squirt a few drops of PEC-12 on a photograph marked with pen and then gently wipe it off with a cotton cloth. The solvent, which can be purchased online, according to Munson, will pull the ink right up.

"We'll number photos with pencil. We're not going to number those with pen, because pen can bleed through images. I've seen it dozens of times," said Munson, who likes to wear a pair of white cotton gloves while working with photographs and rare documents to prevent any oil or dirt from transferring from his hands.

Protecting documents and photos

To protect photographs, photographic negatives and important papers from contact, water and other forms of damage, Munson recommends storing them in sleeves made of an archival-safe plastic, such as polyethylene or polypropylene, and then placing those in a file folder that is kept in an environment in which you would like to live. A temperature and humidity controlled area, such as a closet, is ideal.

Museum preserving items

Tom Munson displays negatives being archived during an interview at the Sioux City Public Museum in Sioux City, Iowa, Tuesday, December 3, 2017. (Jim Lee, Sioux City, Journal)

"Between every photo we have sheets of paper. This helps if these did happen to get wet or did happen to encounter moisture somewhere along the line," he said.

Storing photos in frames can be problematic. Over time, the photos could become stuck to the glass. If that happens, Munson said your best bet is scanning the framed photos before trying to remove them.

"Even a good conservator will tell you it's very difficult to remove a photo stuck to the glass in a frame," he said while handling a yellowed black and white photograph. "The idea of scanning this is that in some way you're preserving the image even if somehow something happened to this."

Photos, ideally, should also be keep in dark spaces, since sunlight is an agent of deterioration. Munson advises scanning the original and framing the copy for display. 

"You can make a photocopy, put it in a frame and 99 percent of people aren't going to be able to tell the difference," he said. "If you want to display the original, keep it in a dark area out of direct sunlight."

Placing a matte between a photo and the glass, Munson said, will also help protect it from sticking to the glass' surface.

"You're creating that air space for circulation of air. You don't have your photo in direct contact with the glass," he said.


The Sioux City Public Museum has between 800 and 900 scrapbooks in its collection.

Museum preserving items

Tom Munson talks about archiving scrapbooks during an interview at the Sioux City Public Museum in Sioux City, Iowa, Tuesday, December 3, 2017. (Jim Lee, Sioux City, Journal)

Three years ago, the museum started a scrapbook and photo album digitization project using a 12 by 17-inch scanner.

"Most scrapbooks are fairly easy to take apart, so we actually disassembled the scrapbooks," Munson said.

After scanning the scrapbooks and photo albums, Munson said staff placed them in document boxes and expanding folders. Before, the scrapbooks, which Munson said were fairly stable, were sitting open on shelves.

"This is all acid and lignin free," he said, pointing to one of the folders. "Acid is what causes paper to yellow and it comes from the lignin, which is the wood pulp fiber that's left in paper. This also probably has a calcium buffer -- this will help absorb acid and stop the migration of acid."

Wood furniture

Occasional dusting with a clean microfiber cloth is all you need to do to preserve wood furniture or other wood family heirlooms, according to Munson.

Museum preserving items

Tom Munson demonstrates cleaning wood items during an interview at the Sioux City Public Museum in Sioux City, Iowa, Tuesday, December 3, 2017. (Jim Lee, Sioux City, Journal)

"If you're trying to dust a historic family pieces of furniture and you start snagging, I would stop what you're doing and get out a vacuum with a brush attachment," he said. "It's a good way to get dust off of things."

If you start to see the finish coming off a painted surface while dusting, Munson advises to stop and seek guidance from a professional conservator or try cleaning the item with a vacuum brush attachment.

"There are also soft, natural fiber brushes like hake brushes. That's not likely to remove (the finish)," he said. "I would refrain from using things like waxes or other dusting compounds like Pledge or Endust. Some of them contain silicates, which are abrasive."

Porcelain or ceramic pieces

When cleaning porcelain or ceramic heirlooms, such as a vase that survived the 1904 Pelletier fire, Munson said it's best to handle the object with bare hands or nitrile gloved hands on a padded surface to prevent the object from slipping and breaking.

He said he wouldn't do anything to the vase, other than dusting it with a microfiber cloth. Altering the vase's bluish and brownish iridescent tint in order to restore it to its original pink and white hues, Munson said, would decrease the object's monetary value, as well as its historical value.

"I'm not a huge fan of restoration projects because you're removing original surfaces. You're essentially turning that old object into a new one," he said. 

If you're unsure how to clean a family heirloom or historic treasure, Munson recommends visiting The National Park Service's website offers Conserve O Grams, short leaflets about caring for museum objects.


One of his first projects as a volunteer, Munson said was cleaning oxidation spots off a leather belt that had silver grommets.

"I worked for like three hours on a single belt like that," he recalled.

Oxidation stains on leather, Munson said, can easily be removed by wiping the stain with a cotton cloth.

To dress, apply soap or oil to leather, or not to dress?

Munson said studies show that re-lubricating leather with saddle soap isn't beneficial in the long run, although he said museum staff do often dress leather pieces before the items go on exhibit.

"Even though it does almost no good and can be slightly bad, it does help to clean up surfaces," he said. "It can also cause staining and actually attract more dust and dirt."


Health and Lifestyles reporter

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