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Caring for military memorabilia, medals and photos

Family photos and memorabilia

Tips on how to preserve their legacy

The centenary of World War One has prompted many of us to think more deeply about our family histories. This in turn may have led to thoughts about how best to care for any special military memorabilia tucked away in a draw or gathering dust in the garage. Preserving these precious artefacts and family heirlooms is important to ensure their legacy endures for many years to come.

Cobus Van Breda and Nikki Kingsmith, experienced conservators from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), have some tips to keep your family’s memorabilia in good condition.

The Five Golden Rules

  1. Avoid handling items too often. When you do have to handle them have clean hands, wear cotton gloves and make sure items are supported if moved
  2. Do not laminate
  3. Don’t use sticky tape, metal clips, rubber bands or post it notes
  4. Make copies, digitise and back up documents. If items are fragile take them to a professional to copy
  5. Any items that could be considered dangerous should be well secured and made inoperable


  • Photos are extremely vulnerable to physical damage from frequent handling so you should handle them as little as possible
  • If you must pick up a photograph to examine it closely, place it on a rigid support such as cardboard, and lift the board
  • You can protect photos by separating them or interleaving them, ideally with archival materials such as photographic storage paper, Mylar and acid-free glassine
  • Smooth white papers that have an almost shiny surface are not suitable for interleaving as they have a mineral coating that becomes sticky when damp
  • Avoid displaying photos in areas of high light to prevent fading and discolouration
  • Make prints of frequently-used photographs, the copy prints can be used as the working records and the original photographs can be stored safely


  • The best way to care for memorabilia on paper is to protect items by enclosing them in archival sleeves and folders, and archival boxes, and handling them carefully
  • Make copies of paper items that are accessed regularly or that are to be displayed in poor conditions or for a long time. Originals should then be safely stored and accessed only in special circumstances
  • You can photocopy stable material such as printed documents, but copy the original only once, make any further copies from the photocopy
  • Fragile material, and items that are extremely light-sensitive like early photographs, should not be photocopied in this way. Alternatively you can take a non-flash photo of them.


  • Turn pages slowly and with care as it is very easy to tear fragile paper if you flick through the pages quickly
  • Don’t lick your fingers to turn pages as moisture can set dirt into the paper


  • When handling textiles do so with care and make sure they are supported
  • Refrain from displaying your textiles in a highly lit area, such as under spot lights or near windows.
  • Textile items should only ever be on short term display, no longer than three months.
  • You should not place textiles such as flags, uniforms or medals into picture frames for permanent hanging as light damage is irreversible
  • Do not glue textiles like flags, badges or cloth down into exhibits
  • Do not use shop mannequins for the display of uniforms. You should contact a conservator if you want to exhibit textiles, for advice and methods

Medals/ metal items

  • Medal items should be handled with gloves to guard against corrosion associated with acid fingerprints
  • Most metal items have an organic component, so treat it as an organic in terms of light damage and humidity control, to reduce cracking and fading. Keep an eye on condensation and dust as this can also lead to corrosion
  • To protect metal items, wrap in unbuffered, acid-free tissue paper and store in acid free boxes

Storage conditions

  • Avoid extremes in temperature and humidity
  • Maintain good air circulation to avoid mould
  • Avoid high natural and artificial light
  • Store safely away from any insects or other rodents
  • Check regularly to monitor any change in condition

Best overall advice

Understanding how to preserve memorabilia can be difficult.  With many different types of materials and conditions to take into consideration, its hard to know which approach is best to take when conserving memorabilia. Collectors, or those wanting to protect family heirlooms, should contact their local conservator and follow the conservator’s advice to suit the individual situation.

Further information

A good overview of how to care for collections is available at The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material (AICCM) website

You can find a local conservator via the AICCM directory of conservators