Museum FAQ: Conservation

Recent news stories about damage to the famous gold mummy mask of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (aka. Tut), and a botched amateur mural restoration in Spain from a few years ago, got me thinking about conservation. Specifically, how little most people know about what goes into preserving and restoring historic artifacts. As a museum professional I am fairly well acquainted with the world of museum conservators, but even I am not a trained conservator. As the Curator of Collections, my job is focused on preventing damage to artifacts (aka. preventative conservation), not repairing items. That delicate, and highly specialized task, is one best left to professional museum conservators.

What is museum conservation?

Museum conservation covers a wide range of activities. Conservators are trained to handle everything from cleaning artwork, stabilizing objects weakened by the environment, to reconstructing objects. The goal of any type of conservation treatment is to preserve the artifact without compromising its historic nature. Most treatments are designed to be “reversible.” That way if the resulting repair is later found to be inaccurate, or in any way flawed, the adhesives or colorings used can be easily removed without leaving a permanent mark on the artifact. However, it isn’t always possible to make all treatments fully reversible, particularly when it comes to cleaning artifacts. Once something like a varnish, from a painting or piece of furniture, is removed, it can never truly be restored to the way it was prior to cleaning. Because of this conservators are careful to document everything they do to an artifact so that after the treatment is completed there will always be a record of what was changed and how. This allows later researchers to easily differentiate what part of the object is “original” and which parts were added or changed later.

Museums and collectors alike struggle with conservation decisions, trying to find the right balance between “fixing” and “changing” an artifact. After all, some of our most treasured national artifacts are damaged. The Liberty Bell comes to mind as an excellent example, and has been obviously cracked since the early 1800s.  If the crack was filled and the bell made to look brand new, would it still be the national symbol it is today?

The following video shows more of what museum conservators do.

Where can I find a conservator?

Most museum’s collections staff are trained in the best practices of object storage, in order to prevent deterioration of artifacts in their care. However, if an object has been damaged, either through accident or simple age, a conservator must be found to safely treat the resulting damage. While most museum professionals hold fixed positions at one museum, conservation is becoming a field increasingly dominated by independent contractors. Relatively few museums have the resources to keep a full-time conservator on staff. Additionally, the field of conservation is so broad that most conservators are forced to specialize in a particular type of object care. For instance, there are specialized conservators for paintings, textiles, photographs, and wooden objects who work on nothing but their particular specialties. For this reason, museums and private collectors rely on professional conservation organizations, like the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Intermuseum Conservation Association, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, and others to help locate qualified conservators.

Learn more about museum conservation….

American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute

Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies

Canadian Conservation Institute

Midwest Regional Conservation Guild

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