Conservation

You, Too, Can Be a Curator

Letters home from far away.

Last year, when we were cleaning out our basement storage area, hoping to find something to throw away in order to make room for more things we will probably eventually throw away, we came across a big box of letters written to us by our daughters when we were in Panama and they were in school in the States: Elly at the University of Oregon, and Sarah in New York at the Academy of Dramatic Arts

As I read them, it became clear that we could never throw these letters away, that in fact although they weren’t terribly old, they were probably already historic documents of a sort, deserving of special storage. Here was a large collection of letters, telling the story of the everyday activities and concerns of teenagers during their first years away from home, learning to be independent.

Hardly anyone writes letters like this any more. They were frequent and long— page after page of complete sentences. And almost all of them are written in longhand—very readable and consistent cursive. Sarah had no need for a typewriter since no papers were required at the Academy (her tool of learning was a cassette tape recorder.) Elly had a typewriter, but chose to write in longhand instead of typing. The letters are truly charming, often funny, and frequently contemplative.

But I think even more important than that they represent the dying tradition of newsy letter writing is the fact that these girls were truly away from home and their parents. Today, maturing children can text and Skype and email and immediately get help, advice, or at least sympathy. Our girls had to figure it out by themselves. They could have phoned, of course, and sometimes they did, but I don’t recall too many phone calls, and at any rate a phone call is very different from the contemporaneous back-and-forthing of text messaging that young people have at their fingertips today. A letter requires a retrospective synthesizing of experience before you talk about it. Emailing and texting soon after or, for heavens sake during, an experience removes the possibility of mulling it over.

I don’t think it was necessarily a totally positive situation. Learning to fly is hard, and many times I have thought how wonderful it would have been if we could have instantaneously communicated by email. But they learned to manage—no doubt faster than if we had been available to help solve problems immediately. Both of them eventually lived in private housing and dealt with associated problems with landlords,  phone companies , and the like. If they needed to go to the doctor, they just did. We learned about it later–a week or two later. Was this a good thing? I’m not sure. One thing is certain: it was different. The letters represent a period in our history before an important change in the behavior of young people striking out on their own took place.

So the upshot is that I decided not to stuff the letters back in the box we found them in but to give them storage I felt was appropriate. From my experience at the Merchant’s House Museum, I knew  that proper storage of things you want to preserve, especially those made of paper,  is important. So—I set about preserving them. Archival document supplies are available from this supplier

Things worth saving need a safe place to live.

I dare says everybody has important paper objects that need to be saved and protected for future generations. Not just the obvious diplomas, birth and marriage certificates, awards, and so on, but personal letters, photographs, post cards, greeting cards, children’s drawings, homework, and recipe cards. Yes–recipe cards! Before you are tempted to put your recipes on the computer and throw away the spattered, tattered cards that tell how to make favorite dishes, read this.

If this is something that interests you, check out thefamilycurator.com. It’s a site that emphasizes genealogy, but search the archives by topic and you’ll find lots of information on preserving family treasures—including recipe cards!
And finally, if you have anything precious that needs professional help, consult this source. It’s a site for professional conservators, but in the “resource center” section, they have a tool for finding a conservator near you as well as online guides for the general public on conserving different kinds of material objects: paper, photographs, metal, wood—what have you.
Future generations will thank you.

6 thoughts on “You, Too, Can Be a Curator

  1. Thank you for the nice “shout-out” Mary. I’m glad to have found your blog and hear about your own curatorial pursuits. What a treasure to still have your daughters’ letters. You are so right, we just don’t write long narratives much anymore. Electronic communication has made us impatient for news tidbits, but I do miss those long rambling letters we used to receive.

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    1. I miss the letters, too. It’s truly exciting to see a handwritten envelope in the mailbox, but it hardly ever happens. And I do think we’ve sacrificed something by not writing about our experiences. Of course, there’s always the journal. . . Maybe I’ll write about that one of these days!

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  2. Thank you! This kind of project is so often put off — I’m motivated to get started now. First step – handwritten letters from my parents when I was in school; next step — preserving newspapers from Milwaukee with headlines: Kennedy Shot, Oswald Shot, Moon Landing. And then there are pictures….

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    1. Did you recognize the letters? Archiving letters is easy: archival file folders and flip top boxes.Newspapers need their own big box. They are very acidic and will turn any paper they touch yellow. Photos–suppliers have loads of options in the way of albums, sleeve protectors and archival corners, etc. And you’re going to feel so virtuous!

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  3. This was a wonderful post. I was moved that you have kept your daughters’ letters all this time. I recently found letters I had sent to my parents at the age of 7 from camp, and I thought that was pretty cool! Thanks also for the great resource on archival materials– I plan on ordering several albums for my photos. I have in the past put together scrapbooks and albums of old family photos— for fun– which is why I am pursuing archival preservation studies. 🙂
    Best, Margaret

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