GUILD IN THE PRESS
Art and Science of Conservation
By Elizabeth Weinstein, LASM Art Curator
What do the photograph of your firstborn child, Aunt Fanny's silver
bowl, and a 200-year-old Italian painting have In common? All of them
are treasures and need proper care if future generations are to enjoy
them. But what happens if something breaks or suffers another type of
damage? That's when a conservator comes to the rescue.
Professional conservators must consider a number of factors when deciding
on the appropriate treatment for an object in need of help. They must
evaluate its structural stability, the amount of chemical and physical
deterioration, and its aesthetic, historical, and scientific characteristics.
Conservators are also in the business of teaching how to properly care
There are two distinct approaches to conservation: restoration and preservation.
Restoration is the reconstruction of the appearance of an object, whereas
preservation seeks not only to maintain a physical state but also to
protect all remaining original components of an object. White the terms
restoration and restorer often contain a disparaging connotation when
used in the United States, these terms are used Europe the same way
we use conservation and conservator in the United States.
The practice of restoring objects is ancient. However, conservation
has been an established profession in the United States only since the
1930s. Prior to that time, many restorers used nonscientific and sometimes
unethical practices relying on "trade secrets" to perform
work on priceless objects. A turning point occurred when a group of
scientists and art historians decided to work together to improve the
situation. A growing scientific understanding of materials and their
deterioration along with the development of ethics of practice lcd to
an increased level of professionalism in the Held. Today there are national,
regional, and local nonprofit organizations dedicated to sharing best
practices, ideas, and useful materials.
The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) is the national organization
of conservation professionals. AIC and similar organizations help to
define and maintain a high level of professionalism In conservation.
As part of its mission, AIC provides a public listing of conservators
by region and suggested questions to aid in the selection of a professional.
The careful selection of an appropriate conservator is particularly
important in light of the fact that law does not regulate the profession.
A poor job by a nonprofessional can devalue or even destroy an object.
To help determine a conservator's level of professionalism. AIC suggests
that the following types of information be acquired; extent of training,
length of professional experience, scope of practice (whether conservation
is the primary activity), experience working with type of object, involvement
in conservation organizations availability, references, and previous
Conservation professionals have considerable practical experience, a
broad range of theoretical and scientific knowledge, and a commitment
to high standards. A conservator may be trained in a graduate program
or by lengthy apprenticeship with experienced senior colleagues. Modem
conservation has become increasingly technical. For this reason, many
conservators now specialize in particular types of objects, such as
paintings, works on paper, textiles. sculptures, furniture, or rare
books. Conservators are employed in a variety of settings: museums,
historical societies, heritage institutions, libraries, universities,
archives, laboratories, Government agencies, regional facilities and
private conservation laboratories.
Over the past few years the fastest-growing employment area in the conservation
profession has been private practice. Although most conservators are
willing to travel to retain clients. it is customary to ship objects
for restoration. Although museums, libraries, and other collecting organizations
have as their mission the care of cultural art and artifacts in perpetuity,
few have the available funds to operate a conservation lab on site.
Curators. registrars, and others who handle objects must become expert
at tending to the needs of their collections through preventative maintenance
and constant monitoring.
At LASM, the art curator and registrar work together to ensure that
the 3,000-plus objects in the permanent collection and all works on
loan receive proper care. Environmental considerations are key. Humidity
and temperature levels are carefully monitored and controlled in the
art galleries and storage areas with the aid of instruments such as
thermometers, dehumidifiers, sling psychrometers, and hygrothermographs,
recording devices thai use a bimetallic plate to measure temperature
changes and a band of human hairs to measure fluctuations in humidity.
Light meters help to determine proper light levels, and special fitted
blinds and window tints aid in the blockage of damaging ultraviolet
rays. Although costly, these special instruments are essential for adequate
readings, dutifully recorded on a daily basis.
Consideration is also given to an object's composition or material construction
(ceramics, textiles, wood), which becomes particularly important when
an object is displayed or stored for long periods. When possible, objects
of the same composition are grouped together. Organic materials pose
special concerns. Supports and containers made from acid-free papers
help to alleviate stress on any one pan of an object while preventing
chemical reactions. Because wood containers or shelves are almost certain
to be acidic and can exude harmful resins, they must be coated with
special sealants. In some cases, metal or plastic storage containers
afford better protection. Due to their high cost, LASM has been slowly
acquiring custom-built steel cabinets over the past few years. Fitted
with silicone gaskets and a powder-coated finish, these cabinets are
the ideal home for objects stored over the longterm.
Handling of objects is kept to a minimum. Ever wonder why LASM does
not allow touching of the artwork? The natural oils in human skin can
cause damage to some object surfaces. The registrar wears clean cotton
gloves when moving objects and keeps records of each object's location,
including detailed condition reports. These reports indicate each buckle,
tear, scratch, or smudge on an object's surface. The registrar writes
reports about each object coming into and going out of the museum and
spot-checks objects on display and in storage to ensure that their condition
remains unchanged. When problems or concerns do arise, the museum calls
in a conservator.
Upon encountering an object, a conservator's first task is to provide
a thorough examination and evaluation. This involves the investigation
of the structure, composition, and condition of the object and an understanding
of the historical context in which it was created. Scientific analysis
may be conducted as well as research into records and photographs. The
conservator identifies the causes and extent of any damage and considers
the environment in which it is to be maintained and the owner's intended
use of the object. (For instance, if a piece of fine dinnerware is being
repaired and the owner desires to continue using the plate, a nontoxic
treatment will be used.) The conservator then prepares a written condition
report and proposes a specific treatment. If the owner agrees to the
recommendations, the conservator can then take action. Once the treatment
is finished, the owner receives complete documentation: the condition
report, proposal, and a treatment report detailing what was actually
done, including photographs or other visual materials from each stage
of the treatment. This documentation is important to the history of
the object and should be saved for future referral.
While conservators help to preserve objects of our shared cultural and
national heritage, anything loved and appreciated is worth restoring!