Preserving family treasures after a hurricane—and leaving the spiders alone in the basement

Beside piles of rubble, The Donut Palace was open for business. The image of the little donut shop, defiantly open in the face of the destruction of Hurricane Harvey, will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Two images. Top: Photo of a business called Donut Palace. White building, red "open" sign. Bottom: Pile of rubble on side of road. Bleak and destroyed.

I traveled to Corpus Christi, Texas, with my colleague Carrie Feldman to share resources on rescuing and preserving heirlooms and treasured memories after a natural disaster. The destruction I witnessed knocked me off of my feet. Piles of rubble comprised of houses, businesses, and wood lined the highways as we drove down. The resilience of the people affected, however, was much more palpable.

Photo taken from a car with part of windshield visible. On left side of road, piles of debris. Ahead, a Jeep or truck.

It is often difficult to piece together how best to help others when natural disasters occur—something many of us have experienced while trying to figure out how to help in the aftermaths of recent natural disasters in California, Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas—so I was thankful that the Smithsonian allowed me the opportunity to use the skill sets I have as a museum specialist to aid in the recovery process. While shelter, food, and water are the absolute priority in the wake of this type of destruction, there comes a point where people start rebuilding their lives. That often means salvaging the material objects in which people find their identity. Things like a wedding album, a family Bible, or a quilt made by a family member have so much historical and emotional value. As preservation professionals, we were able to offer guidance on salvaging and preserving these precious personal heirlooms using supplies found at most local hardware stores.

Table covered in items, including print-outs/hand-outs, books, purple gloves, face masks, paper towels.

Carrie and I traveled on behalf of the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI) to conduct workshops at three Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC). The Smithsonian is a cochair of the Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF), which is cosponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Office of Environmental Planning and Historic Preservation. The HENTF administrator worked with the DRC manager (of FEMA) to allow us time and space to conduct workshops in which we demonstrated how to salvage wet photos, books, and textiles. As guests of FEMA and the DRC, we were able to offer tips, tricks, and guidance for survivors' preservation questions. My favorite question by far involved a metal Russian Orthodox icon!

Behind the table in previous photo, three women pose, smiling and looking at camera.

Focus for these workshops was on salvaging after disaster, but there a three things people can do preemptively to prevent the likelihood of damage during a disaster.

Keeping your family heirlooms safe before a natural disaster strikes

1. Basements are for spiders, not for family treasures. It's tempting to use basements as places to store things, but make sure that family heirlooms are stored above the ground and away from areas that flood easily.

2. Attics are for ghosts and bats, not for family treasures. It seems logical that if storing objects in the basement is risky, then storing them at the highest point of the house is the right way to go—but no! The attic is too close to natural forces like rain, wind, and temperature/humidity fluctuation. The best place for things like grandpa's coin collection or grandma’s postcards from Paris is somewhere on the main floor and off the ground where the temperature/humidity is more consistent.

3. Keep objects out of bright sunlight. There's a reason Icarus did not make it, and that is the same reason cloth, wood, and photos fade. Sunlight will cause fading and discoloration of most materials, so it's best to keep family heirlooms out of the sun.

A young women poses with a skeptical face. Around her shoulders a blanket with a spider pattern.

Our hearts are with those in areas affected by natural disaster. Shelter, food, and water are always the first and most important needs to meet during times of destruction. But when safety has been achieved, SCRI, HENTF, and FEMA have resources for reassembling precious material culture.

Bookmark these Emergency Response Resources for easy reference

Black and white photo album
This family photo album was created by Mary Taylor. She used her 35mm Bell and Howell camera to document her family's life in the African American community of Los Angeles, California. She turned a discarded wallpaper sample book into a treasured family heirloom.

Emily Pearce Seigerman is a museum specialist with the National Numismatic Collection.

Posted in Philanthropy