Conservation advice: Medals

Storing your medals

Storing your medals correctly is the easiest and most effective way of preserving them.

Museums keep their artefacts in stable, carefully regulated conditions all year round. Temperature and humidity changes are minimized, but may fluctuate gradually  between 18 - 24°C and between 45 - 55%RH. Light levels are kept low to prevent localised overheating and fading.

At home the best we can do is to keep medals - indeed, all precious objects - clean and dry, and away from extremes of temperature, humidity and light. Damp conditions can cause the metal of medals to corrode, and the fabric to rot. High temperatures and a very dry environment make fabric brittle and weak.

Medals are best stored in boxes made of hoop pine plywood or acid-free cardboard. Ordinary cardboard, and other woods (including woods often used to make cabinets for coins and medals, such as oak, mahogany, chipboard and ordinary plywood) are acidic, and can harm metals and fabrics. Before use, wooden boxes can be completely coated with three coats of polyurethane resin (from a hardware store), then left to dry thoroughly so that no odour remains. Please take appropriate safety precautions when working with paints or solvents.

Wrap the medal in acid-free tissue paper or well-washed fabric, preferably undyed. Soft cotton and linen fabric such as sheets, handkerchiefs or teatowels are suitable, but other fabrics such as velvet should not be used because some contain acidic dyes, which can cause the metal to corrode. Woollen felts should also be avoided, because the sulphur in the wool can cause metals to tarnish.

Acid-free tissue paper and card as well as boxes made of acid-free cardboard are available from specialist suppliers of library or conservation materials.

Handle the medal as little as possible, as acid from your fingers can harm it. We recommend wearing soft cotton gloves (readily available and inexpensive) when handling medals or any precious article.

Cleaning medals

You may need to clean or even polish your medal before storing it.

However, we don't recommend polishing unless absolutely necessary because the repeated abrasion of polishing will damage the sharpness of the medal’s design. And polishing will quickly remove the gilded layer from gold-plated medals (for example, the Victory medal). Also, some polishes contain silicones which stay on the surface, making the application of  a protective coating difficult and later cleaning more drastic than usual.

Note that when cleaning medals you should wear gloves and work in a well-ventilated area. Some of the chemicals are harmful if they touch the skin or are inhaled. Do not smoke when working with paints or solvents. Work out what you need and assemble everything before you start work. Allow enough time to work slowly and carefully, and to finish the job. For each stage of cleaning, first try the cleaning method on a small and inconspicuous area of the medal, for example part of the edge. If you are worried the treatment is harming the medal - stop.

  1. First, take the ribbon off the medal by cutting the stitching, not the ribbon.
  2. Degreasing the medal is the next step. This is done by dipping it in a small jar of acetone (available from your chemist or hardware store) and wiping it with a cotton bud. The acetone will remove most lacquers used to coat the medal. Using a soft child’s toothbrush moistened with water, work the brush gently in small circles to remove surface dirt. Work carefully, rinse frequently, and stop if the brush causes any scratching on the medal’ssurface.
  3. If you think it necessary to polish the medal, use Hagerty's or Goddard's silver foam for silver or plate. Ensure that the foam does not contain silicone. If foam is not available, use Silvo silver polish or even silver dip. As silver dip etches metals, use it only if foam or polish is not available. Follow the instructions on whichever product you use. Make sure you remove all traces of polish after you finish - old polish residues look unsightly and can cause corrosion. Then dip the medal in methylated spirits and wipe it dry with cotton buds. Do not use Brasso to polish copper and brass medals. Brasso is more abrasive than silver polishes, and will remove more metal and design details. The polish residues left from Brasso can be very difficult to remove.
  4. Laquer the medal to prevent future corrosion. Use Wattyl Incralac (available from hardware stores). Hang the medal on a small loop of picture wire, and dip the medal gently into the Incralac for a few seconds. Pull the medal out of the Incralac and use the wire loop to hang the medal somewhere it cannot touch anything. Put some newspaper underneath the hanging medal to soak up any lacquer that drips off it. Use a tissue rolled into a point to wick off any drips at the bottom of the medal before the lacquer dries. Leave the medal untouched for 24 hours, after which the lacquer will be thoroughly dry.

If rainbows appear on the medal, the lacquer is too thin or the room temperature is too low. Sometimes the lacquer will become cloudy during drying. This usually indicates the ambient air is too humid. Remove the lacquer with acetone and re-lacquer in more favourable conditions. Do not heat the lacquer or place in front of a heater.

Cleaning medal ribbons

If you can not, or do not wish to remove the ribbon bar from the medal, you can clean it gently with a soft brush and vacuum cleaner. Attach a narrow piece of soft plastic tubing to the smallest nozzle of your vacuum cleaner. Cover the nozzle with a piece of open-weave gauze fabric - net curtain or gauze bandage is ideal. Set the cleaner to its lowest suction level and gently vacuum the ribbon, using a soft brush to loosen ingrained dirt.

If the ribbon needs further cleaning, it can be dry-cleaned, but only if it can be detached from the medal. Do not wash it. Many of the dyes, especially the older silk dyes, run or "bleed" in water.

Dry-cleaning can be carried out at home but you must take safety precautions. Wear gloves and work in a well-ventilated area as some of the chemicals are harmful if they touch the skin or are inhaled. Do not smoke.

Petroleum spirits, white spirits or methylated spirits are the only solvents that should be used for home dry-cleaning.

The ribbon must be tested for colourfastness before dry-cleaning can begin. Place some blotting paper underneath the ribbon and gently roll a cotton bud with solvent across a very small area of a single colour of the ribbon. Immediately blot the ribbon with another piece of blotting paper. Repeat on all the colours.

If any dye is visible on either sheet of blotting paper, do not clean the ribbon with that solvent. You can now try other solvents in the same way. If the dyes are not colourfast in any of the solvents, then dry-cleaning should only be attempted by a textile conservator or professional dry-cleaner.

If the blotter shows no sign of dye, clean the ribbon using the technique described above, swabbing and blotting a small area at a time.

Do not iron the ribbon. To flatten it, place it between two sheets of blotting paper that have been very slightly dampened with distilled or deionised water. Put some map weights - or two or three books - on top of the blotter for up to 30 minutes.

If you wish to reattach the ribbon to the medal, stitch it carefully with cotton or silk thread. Do not use staples or sticky tape to hold ribbons together.

Medal ribbons are vulnerable to light damage. Light can fade the dyes in a short time and make the fibres brittle, especially if they are silk. Ribbons are best stored in the dark. Interleave acid-free paper between the medal and ribbon to reduce the chance of the metal staining the ribbon.

The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material provides a directory of conservators in private practice. You can use the directory to find someone in your region with the expertise to provide qualified care of your memorabilia.