Caring for Your Collection: How to Frame Your Own Artifacts to Museum Standards

4 min read

Have you ever wondered what more could be done to preserve a favorite keepsake or family heirloom?

In August 2015, Ford’s Theatre Society was fortunate enough to receive a donation of an original Ford’s Theatre playbill from the 1864 production of a play called Three Guardsmen. While the artifact itself was in relatively good condition, considering it was 151 years old, we knew we would need to reframe the playbill to bring it to current conservation standards and to ensure it could be used as an educational tool for years to come.

When thinking about how to best preserve your heirloom or artifact for future generations, there are several important elements of professional framing to consider with your professional framer.

Mat Board is one of the most important materials you will select, because it is the only material that comes in direct contact with your artifact. There are three types of mat board, each carefully designed to neutralize or remove the acid that naturally forms in wood-based paper products over time.

Standard mat board—confusingly—is often labeled “archival” or “acid-free” but is the least acid-free of the three types. It is just fine for prints that don’t need to be preserved indefinitely because acid is released slowly, causing the inevitable yellowing and brittleness to occur over many years. Rag Mat is the industry standard. It uses a stiffened cotton core with a paper face. Because there is less wood-based product in Rag Mat, acid is produced even more slowly, and your artifact will be safe for generations (some brands even claim up to a century), with little damage. Museum Rag is the highest quality (and most expensive) type of mat board, made entirely with cotton. It is used by museums, which require absolutely zero risk to the artifact artifact and preservation that can last hundreds of years.

The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute is a great resource for additional information.

Mounting Method is the way the artifact is adhered to the matboard, so it appears to “float” in the middle of the frame. For our Three Guardsmen playbill, the original framer used acidic adhesive squares that permanently discolored the playbill in the top corners. Unfortunately, this is a common thing modern conservators discover. Older restoration work is performed with the best of intentions only to be revealed as damaging later. In the case of our playbill, we removed as much of the old adhesive as possible and installed the current standard: hinges.

Hinges are small pieces of tissue paper that can be carefully adhered to the back of your piece with reversible adhesive (that is, glue or tape that is easily removed or dissolved without damage to the object). In the case of the Three Guardsmen playbill, the hinges have now been threaded through the back of the mat board and taped.

An overmat acts as a spacer so there is room for any inherent thickness or three-dimensional aspect of your piece. The overmat is a piece of mat board with a window cut into it. If your artifact is particularly thick, the framer might use foam core or coroplast (corrugated plastic) to raise the overmat off the piece even further.

Ultimately, Glass shields your art from outside pollutants, particularly light. There are two choices. Real glass is generally more popular, and some argue it is clearer. Plexiglass, on the other hand, will not shatter on impact, making it a better choice for high-traffic or kid-friendly display places.

For either glass or plexi, the keyword to look for is “UV-filtering.” This will guard your piece against damage from sunlight and indoor light—although it’s always best to keep your art out of direct sunlight.

Finally, all that’s left is choosing the Frame—this is where you can let your imagination run wild! Since there is no contact between the frame and the artifact, the colors and materials in the frame are much more diverse. You might want to choose a frame color that complements one of the colors in your piece, or you could even highlight a décor color in the room where the artifact will hang.

Next month we’ll explore more about the playbill shown here and what it reveals about Ford’s Theatre before it became an infamous crime scene.

Heather Hoagland is former Exhibitions and Collections Manager for Ford’s Theatre Society. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @HLHoagland.

The Ford's Theatre Logo

Heather Hoagland was former Exhibitions and Collections Manager for Ford’s Theatre Society.