WHEN GRACE LEUNG started decorating her new home in Hong Kong, she made sure heirlooms took pride of place. 'There were a few family pieces I really wanted to use,' says Leung, a Chinese-American who moved from the US. 'It seemed appropriate to have heirlooms that came from China on display again in China.' Leung unpacked her boxes but found that an elmwood table from her father's family had been scratched and a wedding gown belonging to her grandmother was stained and frayed. 'My husband suggested I get rid of them, but there was no way I'd do that. These are family treasures.' Leung's is a familiar story for Paul Harrison, the owner of Hong Kong-based Phoenix Conservation, which repairs and conserves old possessions. Through intervention, it's possible to prevent family heirlooms deteriorating, says Harrison, who prefers to conserve objects rather than restore them. 'Conservation respects the age and history of an artefact and incorporates those aspects into the repairing process,' he says. And he's mindful of the family link that makes some objects so precious. 'Many families arrived here with little more than the shirts on their backs,' he says. 'This makes what's left all the more precious.' Harrison works with ceramics, glass, stone and wood, as well as archival material such as paper and books. 'Someone brought me their most beloved insect-eaten childhood books,' he says. 'By repairing loose pages and reinforcing the leather backing I was able to restore them for continued enjoyment.' He was recently commissioned to remove tarnish from a silver opium pipe and he lacquered it to prevent further blackening. He has also repaired a collection of Chinese instruments. Conservator Diana Collins says textiles are popular keepsakes. But, more recently, people have started picking up things on holiday to keep as mementos. 'Individually crafted textiles more than 50 years old are hard to find,' she says. Collins, who charges $600 an hour, begins projects with a consultation to determine the client's needs and budget. Objects can be cleaned or stabilised, which involves strengthening a damaged area to prevent further harm. Pieces that no longer have a function, such as Chinese robes and Japanese obi sashes, can be restored and used for decoration. 'A great aunt's old shawl became a wall decoration and nothing was lost from the original,' Collins says. She also recently conserved a 41/2-metre Taoist silk wall hanging from the turn of the last century. To prevent damage to textiles, Collins suggests displaying a few pieces at a time and rotating collections every few months. 'Hang them in areas where light can be controlled, like a corridor, and never against external walls, because these tend to be damp.' When not on display, textiles should be cleaned professionally and kept in a dry, ventilated cupboard. They should be stored flat, but if space is lacking, items can be folded - and refolded in a different direction annually. Long textiles can be rolled around tubes covered with microwave cling film to prevent acid moving from the cardboard to the material. All textiles should be wrapped in archival tissue paper suitable to the material. For some families, photographs are all that remain of past generations and these, too, can become damaged by light and humidity. 'People who still use photo albums with plastic page coverings should get rid of them,' says Louise Garnaut, a paper restorer, custom book binder and owner of Bookworks in Central. 'Photos should be put in an album without adhesive and with acid-free paper.' Sometimes the heirloom is the album itself and this is where Garnaut combines her book-binding and conservation skills. She recently worked on a 40-year-old red velvet album with the symbol for double happiness on the cover. 'The album was in bad shape, but we were able to incorporate the cover into a new album with the old family photos in it,' Garnaut says. Photos should be protected from direct and artificial light, she says. If framed, a space should be left between the frame and glass to prevent sticking. 'We've often recommended that people store photos in hallways where there's air movement and control of light and temperature,' she says. Archival quality albums and photo storage systems are available at many places, including Bookworks. Garnaut says people should spend more to get quality developing for their films and negatives. For her part, Leung says she's happy with the conservation work that was done on her possessions, which cost her $5,000. Equally as precious as the objects, was the sight of different generations enjoying them, she says. 'My father was touched when he saw his grandchildren sitting around his childhood table.'