What objects are worth conserving?

Sick of making sourdough? Has tidying and reorganising your home turned up a trove of treasures?

This series of blogs will provide an overview into how to conserve your family’s precious heritage, using affordable at home solutions, or advise when you may need to escalate and consult a conservator. To start off with, however, I want to discuss what kinds of items may be considered precious and worth conserving.

Anything that holds sentimental value or tells a story about your history is an important artefact that is worth conserving.

The answer is quite simple: anything that has meaning to you, your family, your community, or all of the above. Anything that holds sentimental value or tells a story about your history is an important artefact that is worth conserving. And the fact that you have kept it is already an act – perhaps the most important act – of conservation (Scott 2018). I think lots of people want to keep these heirlooms from their family, but may feel as though others will not find them useful, or interesting, and people sometimes make the hard decision to part with them. Let this blog be a justification for keeping old ‘bits and pieces’, and perhaps be an inspiration to find out more about their use!

Anything that holds sentimental value or tells a story about your history is an important artefact that is worth conserving. Image: jarmoluk/Pixabay.

Anything that holds sentimental value or tells a story about your history is an important artefact that is worth conserving. Image: jarmoluk/Pixabay.

Objects of significance

A look at museums that have a community focus shows that some of the most impactful items are those everyday, commonplace objects that many families may not believe to be of interest to others.

Victorian Collections is an exceptional resource to get an idea of such objects. This site allows members to create an account to archive their collections. Small, community-run museums are able to showcase their objects to the public, which is particularly important during the pandemic. Smaller museums are incredibly important to safeguard Australian history and collections, and allow for localised stories to be told, maintained, and passed down through generations.

An example of an everyday object that can tell more than you might expect is this rabbit trap – something you may find in a grandparent’s garage, that you may believe has no use or deeper meaning. It is, as the National Wool Museum states, symbolic of Australia’s ongoing battle with rabbits destructive to the Australian ecosystem, and a symbol of the hard times faced by Australians during the Great Depression. This rusted object tells two stories about our near ancestors: their struggle against habitat destruction, and their hunger and desperation in hard times.

National Wool Museum, via Victorian Collections. " data-social="1" data-notmb="1" data-noarr="1" data-connect="1" data-lbox="ilightbox_single-139708" data-options="width:919,height:592,thumbnail: 'https://silentworldfoundation.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/rabbit-trap-VictorianCollections-large-300x193.jpg'">Steel-jawed rabbit traps were widely used in urban and rural Australia from 1880 to 1980. Source: National Wool Museum, via Victorian Collections.

Steel-jawed rabbit traps were widely used in urban and rural Australia from 1880 to 1980. Source: National Wool Museum, via Victorian Collections.

An area largely overlooked in history is women’s craft, and the few marks that women were allowed to leave on the world around them. Without getting on my soapbox here, I think that ‘women’s work’ offers us more of an insight into women’s lives, often not represented in text, than one may think at first. Again, side stepping my lectern, needlework and other traditionally women’s crafts are works of art in their own right. Perhaps you have an old piece of embroidery, or cross stitch, slightly mildewed or faded from the sun tucked away?

The Australian National Maritime Museum has a beautiful example of a sampler created by a young girl, Julia Donovan, as she sailed to Australia in 1879. This particular piece is perhaps dedicated to the matron of the ship who cared for the young girl – and so, even though there are fewer histories about women, we have gained an insight into the relationships and behaviours of two women during a tumultuous period of history.

Memory and experience

So we’ve covered objects which may be found tucked away in dusty corners, with no current use, women-specific historical objects, but the last artefact type I’d like to cover in this brief overview is far more ephemeral: memory and experience.

This is a current and ongoing discourse in conservation and archiving generally, but we know that history is written by the victorious and the powerful: hence why the artefacts of the everyday person provide far more information and nuance about society. In times where artefacts no longer survive, or cannot convey the fullness of experience, we look to the human story to fill the gaps.

It may be worth sitting down with a camera and recording your family's experiences and your conversations. Image via Pixabay.

It may be worth sitting down with a camera and recording your family’s experiences and your conversations. Image via Pixabay.

If you have a family member, particularly older family members, who have a trove of stories; maybe about early Sydney, or Melbourne, or the town you grew up in, or perhaps about their experiences travelling for pleasure or for war, it may be worth sitting down with a camera and recording their experiences and your conversation.

Similarly, we are living through historical events ourselves. You might consider creating your own precious heirlooms and collecting objects and ephemera related to the pandemic for future posterity. Received an interesting letterbox drop about how vaccines/5G/whatever flavour of the month are causing the end times? Maybe tuck it away in a folder. Maybe start a journal where you document what it’s like to live in Australia in a pandemic. Facebook and Twitter may become obsolete, or old tweets and posts may be lost or removed, but physical objects can always be read without having to access ancient iPads or the wayback machine.

In my next blog I will recommend some resources that I believe are exceptionally useful for at-home conservation. If you have any requests for me to cover specific item types, please just comment on this blog, or our facebook!

References

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