Did Harvey Damage Your Family Photos? The Smithsonian’s Tips for Saving Waterlogged Heirlooms

Photos and books damaged by floodwaters may never be quite the same – but these tips can help.

By Laura Rice & Jill AmentOctober 16, 2017 1:34 pm, ,

Many of those impacted by Hurricane Harvey may be cleaning up the storm’s mess for some time to come. But along with ripping out moldy installation and repairing roofs, some affected Texans are trying out to figure out what to do with water-logged heirlooms — and experts from the Smithsonian Institution are trying to help.

This past weekend, the Smithsonian Institution’s Heritage Emergency Task Force visited South Texas to help residents restore items like photographs, books and fragile textiles that were salvaged during the storm. Kerry Feldman, museum specialist with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., gave some helpful restoration tips during her visit to Texas.

“Modern photos are printed on photographic paper [and] are actually developed in water, [so] to separate them, we put them back in water,” Feldman says.

She says that once you place photos in distilled or deionized water, they will begin to separate naturally. Feldman suggests laying the photos on an absorbent surface or a window screen once they have separated to allow for air to flow above and below the photos.

Feldman emphasized that restoration supplies are inexpensive and locally available. She says her team spent less than $50 on supplies, which were bought in local hardware stores and places like Walmart. She said it’s important to remember that salvaged heirlooms will never return to their original condition, but that even items such as waterlogged paperback books can be completely dried out.

“Wrap a book with freezer wrap, and then seal all the edges with painter’s tape,” she says. “If you can leave the books frozen for months, over time the water will evaporate and the books will dry.”


Written by Rachel Zein.