Monday, November 22, 1999

Capturing time in a capsule


As 2000 approaches, more people are trying to preserve the ways of our lives

BY JOHN JOHNSTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Dick Clark is the exception. Everyone else, and everything else, changes with time.

        No wonder, then, that as a new millennium draws near, people are turning to time capsules to preserve a bit of the present for posterity.

        “They're extremely popular. Schools, Scout troops, churches, and other organizations are doing time capsules. A lot of families are,” says Paul Hudson, a founder of the International Time Capsule Society (ITCS) at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.

        “This is a great time to be alive, Y2K notwithstanding. (A new millennium) happens only once every thousand years. And (a time capsule) is one way to, in a sense, capture that.”

        Some 1,400 time capsules are registered with the society, Mr. Hudson says, “and for every one we have registered, there are probably a thousand that aren't.”

        A time capsule can be as simple or as complex a project as you'd like. For this guide, we spoke to time capsule and preservation experts, and checked out time capsule Web sites.

        • Capsule types

        A Web search turns up time capsules in various shapes, sizes and materials. Prices also vary widely, from under $50, to $1,000 or more.

        Among the more affordable options are capsules from Future Archaeology Inc., based in New York (www.futurearchaeology.com). The company's cylindrical capsules are made of clear polymers, and range in price from $39.95 (12-by-4 inches) to $69.95 (24-by-4 inches).

        The Ark to the Future: A Family Time Capsule and Memory Album (www.arktothefuture.com),is $27.50 in bookstores. It includes a metal container, hardcover scrapbook with pages for each family member, a family tree and a handbook with advice for filling the scrapbook.

        Then again, nobody says you have to buy a specially designed container.

        “A cookie tin or any container really can serve as a time capsule,” says Mr. Hudson. He heard from a grandfather who placed items in a cardboard box, then taped it up for his newborn grandchild to open when he turns 21.

        Of course, a cardboard box must be stored indoors. Which leads us to ...

        • Should you bury it?

Stewart Elementary in Oxford did — for a while. The fourth- and fifth-grade school sealed and buried a time capsule on the school grounds April 23, 1993, to be opened in 2003.

        “Since kids knew where we had buried it, we had to dig it up,” chuckles Norma Winkler, a school secretary. “When you live in a college town, you know how things disappear.”

        The capsule has been relocated to the school's boiler room for safe keeping.

        “Hasn't been opened,” Mrs. Winkler says.

        And there are other reasons burying a time capsule often isn't a good idea.

        “Out of site, out of mind,” says Mr. Hudson, who notes that many buried capsules are never found. A capsule that stays visible becomes part of your life.

        “You might just want to come up with something attractive that you put on the mantel of your fireplace. Then it becomes an object of curiosity over the generations,” he says.

        If you decide to keep a time capsule in your home, avoid the basement or attic, which are more prone to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, says Scott Gampfer, director of history collections for the Cincinnati Museum Center. Also, the capsule's contents should not be exposed to light.

        If you do decide to bury a time capsule, make sure it's watertight, Mr. Gampfer says. Also keep directions for finding it in a safe place.

        • What to put in it

“The No. 1 thing people say to me is, "We want to put a videotape in,' ” Mr. Gampfer says. Bad idea, he notes. Even under the best conditions, videotape lasts only about 20 years.

        And even if the tape survives until the capsule is opened, playback equipment may not be available. (Consider: If someone gave you an 8-track tape today, would you be able to listen to it?)

        The same problem applies to high-tech items, such as CD-ROMs and computer disks. Although they can hold lots of information, it's questionable whether they'll survive undamaged, or if future generations will be able to use them.

        “An old-fashioned scrapbook would probably be more likely to survive 50 years than a CD-ROM,” Mr. Hudson says.

        Better to include a CD simply as an example of how people in the 1990s stored information, he says. Then toss in a hard copy of the CD's contents.

        On the Future Archaeology Web site, managing director Christopher Chance muses that insignificant items such as newspaper ads and TV guides may be of interest to future generations.

        He also suggests including photographs, birth and wedding announcements,maps, baseball cards, a list of popular songs, coins, stamps, and the latest jokes.

        Other possibilities: restaurant menus, special toys (such as a Beanie Baby) and ticket stubs.

        Black and white photographs tend to preserve better than color, Mr. Gampfer notes. To prevent emulsions from sticking together, place each photo in an envelope or sleeve, he says.

        Likewise, metal items, such as coins or medals, should be placed in individual sleeves or envelopes to prevent corrosion.

        Paper items should be on acid-free paper, he says. Ideally, newspaper, which deteriorates quickly because it's acidic, should be de-acidified. Archival Conservation Center Inc. in Finneytown charges $25 per sheet, for one to 10 sheets; $7.50 per sheet for 51 to 100 sheets.

        A less expensive option (though not as effective) is to wrap acid-free tissue around newspaper, Mr. Gampfer says.

        Don't include anything made of PVC — polyvinyl chloride. (Nor should the time capsule itself be made of PVC pipe). Its chemical components eventually break down and release damaging acids.

        Mr. Gampfer also advises against including liquids. He knows of a church that placed a bottle of Holy Water in a capsule. When the bottle cracked, much material was ruined.

        Finally, Mr. Gampfer says, include in the capsule a list of all items, along with an explanation of why they were chosen.

        • When to open it

        “Some elementary schools seal one in September and open it at the end of the school year. That's a long time to a kid,” says Mr. Hudson. Most capsules are sealed for at least 10 years, he says. Fifty years is common. At 100 years, the challenge is whether anyone will remember the capsule exists.

        Mark the outside of the capsule with the current date and the date it is to be opened. Seal it up. But don't just forget about it.

        Mr. Hudson says some people celebrate their time capsule's birthday each year. Or they pick a day, such as the Fourth of July, and “give it a ceremonial inspection,” he says.

        That way, it's less likely to be forgotten. And over the years, anticipation will build as the day nears when it will be reopened and its contents carefully examined.

       



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