The last article I wrote was about early photography and the many changes that were made to the processes before the advent of electronic imaging. Today most “photos” are kept on memory cards or downloaded to computers, and often are not ever printed to be handed around at family gatherings. In years past every gathering seemed to include square pieces of photo paper with images of children, the last vacation or some other significant event, rather than images posted to Facebook! The entire industry and experience of photography was based on images produced by light sensitive film and light sensitive paper that was exposed carefully and thus preserved the images that were captured by the camera. Without light sensitivity there would be no photographic images to remember the past and the people that were important to us.
Light sensitivity is an issue with most every type of paper and printing however, not just photography, and I would like to take a few minutes to dwell on that issue. Although the fact of light sensitivity was a benefit for photographs, for most other types of historical documentation, any printed art or maps and most any other collectible item, light can damage and fade the image and decrease the value and information provided by the item. Every piece of paper and virtually every manner of printing an image is damaged by being exposed to light, particularly the ultra-violet range that is so prevalent in sunlight or fluorescent lighting. It has been a standard dictum of document conservation for many years that any exposure to light is to be avoided, and putting a historical item in direct sunlight will surely destroy it in a very short time (just think of a newspaper that is left in the sunlight for a week or more).
How then do you display and enjoy the presence of treasured items without harming them by exposing them to harmful UV light? The answer is to be cautious in how you handle important and historical items, and if you do not need to have them on display, then store them properly and out of direct light. But it is perfectly reasonable to display items if you handle them correctly and carefully. Enough light is important to enjoying them, but keep light to a minimum and certainly avoid direct sunlight and fluorescent lighting if at all possible. If you are going to frame an old or important paper object, be sure it is done with the highest conservation standards and use only “museum quality” materials. There are also some types of glass and plexiglass available that will filter out most of the UV range of light and thereby protect the image from the fading effects of direct lighting.
Another suggestion has come to me with the recent introduction of new generations of LED lights for home lighting. After a bit of research I realized that LED light, because of the nature of its source, does not produce the primary range of light frequency that produces fading, namely what we know as ultra-violet light ranges. It can be made with special filters to produce the UV range, but the general LED light fixture is not nearly as harmful as virtually every other light source that is commonly available. In addition it requires less electricity to provide a comfortable level of light, and thereby it produces less heat, it is now available in several ranges of light “color” for every need and is commercially available at larger light bulb sources. After some inquiry and research I decided that the benefits were great enough to convince me to change out most all of the lighting in my antique gallery to LEDs to preserve and display the variety of old maps, documents, books and art that I am intending to display. There is an initial increase in the cost of light bulbs, but the benefits of lower operating costs and the significant value of protecting the artwork and maps I am trying to display, which in some cases are well over four hundred years old, speak loudly to the importance of making the switch.
If you have some important documents or pictures, whether they are old or valuable in the marketplace or just to you personally, it is important to consider how to display and enjoy them without harm. If you would like to discuss this further or have questions, I would be glad to visit with you at any time, and many of the people involved in the local museums and art galleries are also knowledgeable in this area. The primary issue it to realize that any display of art or historical items can lead to problems if not handled properly, and as stewards of our precious heritage we each should be certain that what we do today will preserve for the future the things we love from the past. Thus we can continue to enjoy and learn from ... the way it was.