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BOOK REVIEW – The Care of Antiques

The Care of Antiques and Historical Collections was first published in 1972 by Per E. Guldbeck. A. Bruce MacLeish “fully revised and greatly expanded” the original version in a second edition published in 1983. Several reprints followed.

MacLeish decided to revise this landmark book because he knew Guldbeck himself would have wanted to. "I felt that he would have been interested in taking his book a step further," says MacLeish, "had he not died before that was possible. The need for a basic resource to provide that information has not changed. Sometimes I think that everyone by now must know about handling things with gloves and using archival materials, but that is not quite the case."

The Care of Antiques is a treasure-trove of information for anyone responsible for taking care of a historical collection. It is practical, easy to read, and full of guidance for problem solving collections issues.

"The book is certainly not a mass-market publication," says MacLeish, "but I like to think that it conveys a reasonable and conservative approach to very basic conservation steps that anyone can take with collections."

Chapters cover topics such as Good Storage – and How to Keep It That Way, Fire Protection, and Packing Artifacts for Shipment. It also addresses the finer points of artifact care and conservation in chapters on paper, wood, skin and leather, bone, stone, metal, textiles, ceramics, and glass. Each chapter is filled with tips on how to care for and clean each type of artifact, with specific recommendations based on its unique characteristics.

Guldbeck and MacLeish address many collections concerns, and offer practical solutions to reverse damage or slow the process of deterioration. They explain clearly why we should never refinish wood, wash bone or ivory artifacts, or use commercial silver polish on historical pieces. This type of information could easily be used as a basis for a public program on caring for your own collections at home.

The appendix “Making Padded Coat Hangers for Historical Garments” is an invaluable resource. Complete with step-by-step drawings, this section of the book provides detailed directions for museum staff or volunteers to make hangers that are safe for historic textiles. Although another appendix on material and equipment suppliers is likely dated, many of the companies remain in business. A quick internet search can verify which ones still exist.

The book also reminds the profession that without our collections, we are not really a museum. In Guldbeck’s introduction to the original edition, he writes: “Large institutions may put their energies into exhibition, education, or other activities at the expense of the basic collections which are the core of the institution’s validity.” Although he wrote those words almost 40 years ago, they are even more true today than they were then.

In recent years, museums have had to focus on raising money in a shrinking economy, often delaying or eliminating important collections projects. We must always remember that our collections are vital to what we do. Without our artifacts, we cannot exhibit or educate!

The Care of Antiques and Historical Collections should be on the bookshelf of every museum professional who works with artifacts. It is a go-to guide for all kinds of important information, from appropriate light levels to ideal humidity. You will refer to it again and again.


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