The Art and Science of Conservation

By Elizabeth Weinstein, LASM Art Curator
LASM Quarterly
Spring 2006

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 for objects.

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 clients.

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!

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