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Save Your Family Treasures

Save Your Family Treasures

Quick Tips

Fact Sheets

Additional Resources

FEMA and the Smithsonian Institution co-sponsor the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, a partnership of more than 60 national service organizations and federal agencies created to protect cultural heritage from the damaging effects of natural disasters and other emergencies.

The Task Force offers the following guidance to help you recover your family treasures from a disaster.

Steps to Save Your Family Treasures

With a little patience and prompt action, saving cherished photographs, letters, paintings and other irreplaceable objects is possible. These step-by-step instructions will help you stabilize your treasured objects and buy you time to make an educated decision on further treatment and handling of your family mementos.

  1. Prioritize: You may not be able to save everything, so focus on what’s most important to you, whether for historic, monetary, or sentimental reasons.
  2. Create Space: Spreading things out to dry takes up a lot of space! Be creative: gently clip photos to clotheslines, create a drying hammock out of plastic porch screen taped between two chairs, close the gaps in a drying rack with tulle or wrap the bars with pipe insulation for extra support.
  3. Handle with Care: Use great caution in handling your heirlooms, which can be especially fragile when wet.

Quick Tips

Gentle air drying is best for all your treasured belongings—indoors, if possible. Hair dryers, irons, ovens, and prolonged exposure to sunlight will do irreversible damage. Increase indoor airflow with fans, open windows, air conditioners, and dehumidifiers.

Photos, papers, books, and textiles should be frozen if you can’t get them dry within 48 hours. Wrap items in freezer paper and place them in a frost-free freezer set at the lowest possible temperature.

Photographs

  • Never pull apart wet photographs and negatives that are stuck together.
  • If time allows, take a photo of your photograph to save a digital copy of it
  • Clean photographs by rinsing them carefully in distilled water, if available, or in clean water if you cannot find distilled water.
  • Air dry photos on a plastic screen or paper towel, or by hanging them by the corner with plastic clothespins.
  • Don’t let the image come into contact with other surfaces as it dries.

Additional PDF Resources

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Photo and camera

Books

  • If you have books that were in sewage-contaminated water, they are hazardous to your health. Discard them or consult a professional conservator for advice.
  • Remove dust jackets to dry separately.
  • Place paper towels between the pages of wet books.
  • For books that are damp or partially wet, if the books were in muddy, rusty, or salt water, rinse the books, one at a time, in a bucket or tub of clean water, holding the book closed tightly while dipping

Additional PDF Resources

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Documents, Prints and Papers

  • Remove paintings and prints from frames.
  • Air dry items if you have only a few wet documents or papers, or if you have enough space to air dry all of your items.
  • Air dry flat as individual sheets or in small piles up to a quarter inch high.
  • Documents can be frozen if you have too many pieces to air dry. It may take several weeks to several months for this process.

Additional PDF Resources

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Fact Sheets

When lives are upended by a flood, hurricane, tornado or fire, treasured possessions such as family heirlooms, photos and other keepsakes become more cherished. The Heritage Emergency National Task Force offers these basic guidelines from professional conservators for those who are searching for — and finding — family treasures amid the ruins.

After the Fire: Advice for Salvaging Damaged Family Treasures

After the Flood: Advice for Salvaging Damaged Family Treasures

Salvaging Water-Damaged Family Valuables and Heirlooms

Additional Resources

Since 1995, the Task Force has been providing individuals and the cultural community – museums, libraries, archives, arts organizations, records offices and more – with guidance and technical assistance before, during and after disasters.

A wealth of resources exist on the Task Force website, including the following:

For more information about protecting cultural heritage threatened or affected by disasters — in the United States and abroad — visit the website of our partner, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative.