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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


Museum FAQ: Food

Guests often ask, “Why can’t I bring snacks into the museum?” Many think it is because the museum wants to sell more at their snack bar or restaurant, but the real answer has much more to do with object preservation than you may realize. As any restaurant employee, caterer, or home chef can tell you, food is messy. Crumbs and spills are inevitable and, even if they don’t directly touch any artifacts, can have a massive impact on object care. The smallest crumb, food wrapper, or sugary residue from a spill can attract pests.  Vermin and insects can cause large-scale damage to a museum’s collection in very little time.

Why are pests such a big concern?


This image is Image Number 1233096 at Forestry Images, a source for forest health, natural resources and silviculture images operated by The Bugwood Network at the University of Georgia and the USDA Forest Service.

Pests enter buildings in search of food, shelter, and good places to reproduce. Different types of pests are looking for different types of food. Some are interested in food waste from spills and trash containers while others prefer to feast on things like paper, cloth, leather, or wood. These pests are particularly dangerous to the historical artifacts stored in museums. Other pests, like spiders, have no interest in those types of products but instead feast on other insects drawn to the food in the area. In museums the feeding habits of pests like clothes moths, odd beetles, and silverfish are cause for great concern. The photo at the right shows some of the damage clothes moths can cause.

When pests aren’t eating, they are finding places to hide and reproduce. In the case of vermin like rats and mice, this usually causes them to create holes and gather nesting material. The construction of these nests can be quite damaging but, the nesting material and waste from the animal also attracts other types of pests. Insect pests often chose to lay their eggs in existing materials, like the nooks and crannies of corrugated cardboard boxes, or inside the fibers of the carpet. All pests are typically quick to reproduce, and populations can quickly grow out of control.

How do museums stop pests from destroying the collections?

Museum professionals use a system called Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, to help monitor and control pest populations. This system focuses on the prevention of pests. The idea is that museums want to keep as many pests out of the building as possible by being very careful what types of items can be brought inside. When food and plants are allowed inside a museum, for instance during weddings and events, museums have to develop guidelines to ensure that the items are brought in pest-free, the trash is disposed of quickly and all items are removed promptly after the event.

Museums are also very careful to inspect items coming into collections storage areas to make sure they aren’t already infested. In addition to inspecting items, some museum also have specialized quarantine and treatment areas to eliminate any pests that might be hiding. These treatments can include freezing or placing items in a CO2 environment.

IMG_0429The next part of IPM is monitoring for pests. Museums use a variety of traps to catch pests inside the museum, like the one shown at the left. These traps don’t work to eliminate all the pests in the building but, help us to identify what types of pests we have and can let us know when their populations start to rise. By tracking this information museums are able to stop many pests problems before they develop into an infestation.

Museums use poisons only as a last resort when dealing with pests, rather than as a preventative measure. The materials used to treat for pests by commercial pest services are not specifically tested for use around museum objects and applying them to artifacts could cause more damage than they prevent. Pest traps can help to identify specific items or smaller areas of a museum that need treatment, before the pests spread. If the problem can be narrowed down enough, the item many be able to be treated without using any chemicals.

Learn more about museum pests and IPM….

Harmon, James D. Integrated Pest Management in Museum, Library, and Archival Facilities: A Step by Step Approach for the Design, Development, Implementation, & Maintenance of an Integrated Pest Management Program. [Indianapolis, Ind.] (P.O. Box 40262, Indianapolis 46240): Harmon Preservation Pest Management, 1993.

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute

National Park Service

Museum FAQ: Temperature

The last time you visited a museum you may have noticed that the temperature in the galleries was a bit cooler than you’d like it.  Museum visitors often ask “Why is it so cold in here?” While every museum wants you to enjoy your visit, we also have to do everything we can to help preserve and protect our artifacts.

temperature devicesSo, why are museums cool?

Temperature, along with humidity, plays a major role in object preservation. As temperatures change, the amount of moisture in the air changes. These changes will cause some types of materials to swell or shrink, trigger mold growth, cause corrosion, or cause certain types of chemicals break down. Rapid changes in temperature cause the most damage. While objects are in storage they are often kept inside boxes and cabinets to help insulate them from rapid changes. Each type of material (wood, metal, glass, leather, plastic, etc.) has a different ideal temperature range. Ivory is best stored around 70° F, while films are better off near freezing temperatures. However, most museums house a wide variety of artifacts and have to settle on a temperature that is both comfortable for their guests and minimally damaging to the objects. This means that most museums keep their exhibit spaces at around 68° F, and try to maintain that temperature as much as possible. Especially sensitive artifacts must be kept in separate storage areas that are better suited to their needs, and can only be displayed for short periods of time (often with specially designed cases).

In order to maintain these conditions, museum must closely monitor the temperature and humidity throughout the building, so that any unexpected changes can be addressed quickly. Museums use a number of different tools to help track these changes, including: hygrothermographs, environmental data loggers, humidity indicator papers, and thermometers. The photo on the left shows some examples of these types of tools. Did you spot some of these in your last museum visit?

Learn more about this topic here….

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute

National Parks Service Conserve O Grams

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Canadian Conservation Institute

Ellen Carrlee Conservation

Museum FAQ: Object research


Photo via: Teo Sze Lee, Henderson Secondary School Family Day 2007, Wikimedia Commons

People visit museums to learn more about topics that interest them. Museums showcase a wide range of rare, and unique items from all over the world. Museum collections staff are specially trained in how to preserve and protect these items so that future generations of visitors can enjoy the same experience. They also typically have an academic background that is closely related to the topics featured in their museum, so they can be great resources when you have an item you’d like to learn more about. Here at the Institute of Texan Cultures we frequently get questions from our guests looking for more information about objects that they have discovered. Sometimes when  the story of “what is that?” gets lost, and museums can help.

One of the questions that I often get asked, when people find out where I work, is: “How do you know if the objects are real?” By which, I assume, people want to know how museums do object research to know things like…when was it made…who made it…what was it used for…where did it come from. This type of research can be time consuming, but is definitely something that most people (even non-museum experts) can learn to do. In fact, it can be one of the most exciting parts of acquiring a new collections object.

So, what are the basic steps in researching an object?

Investigation: First, I spend some time talking to the person who brought me the object, to see what they might already know about it. Like a detective, I’m looking for clues about what it might be and where it came from. Sometimes, the person knows parts of the story already and I just need to find the evidence to either confirm or disprove what they already know. Other times, the person bringing the object may have information that can be useful but not even realize it. It is important to know where the item was found, and any previous owners, as these can sometimes be the clues you need to point you in the right direction.

Examination & Documentation: Next, I like to thoroughly examine the item. Are there any makers marks or writing on it? What types of materials is it made of? How big is it? How is it put together? During this step it is important to document any clues that I find. Taking photos and notes will help you refer back to these clues later.

Research: Depending on the type of object, and what you’re wanting to know, some museums may be able to tell you immediately about your item after just these first steps. However, some objects and inquiries need a little more thought and research, even for someone with a museum background. Museum professionals will then use a variety of written and online resources, along with consultations with subject matter experts, to help discover more about your object. However, even a non-expert can sometimes turn up a wealth of information, just through some basic internet searches and a little patience.

DSC_0002Researching your own object

Just like the professionals, start by investigating your item’s history and examining it for clues. These steps should give you some basic information to start your search with. Begin by searching for any names that you discovered. Today there are a number of genealogy and public records focused websites that can help you to find: obituaries, probate records, census records, military service records, newspaper articles and other documents related to these names. Business names, patent numbers, and makers marks can also be searched on the internet with great success, and foreign language inscriptions can be roughly translated using a number of free internet based translation tools. The results of these types of searches can often help tell you where your item came from, and when it was made.

If your investigation and examination did not turn up any names or marks, try to learn more general information about the type of object you have. For instance, if you are researching a wooden trunk, you can use the internet to find out what type of trunks there are. Were certain shapes manufactured, or more popular, in certain areas or at certain times? Sometimes you will discover that your item belongs to a recognizable type, that can be dated or linked to a specific company or maker. At this stage, it is also helpful to use the internet for image searches. These can help you find other similar items, that might have already been identified by someone else.

Hopefully, after these steps you will have discovered what type of item you have, where it was likely made, and roughly how old it is. To find more specific details you can sometimes find collectors guides or books written about your specific type of item. These resources can help you compare how your item is constructed and what it is made of with other similar items, to give you more information about your piece.

If you still weren’t able to find any information about your object, please feel free to seek expert help. Museums are often willing to do some identification research for our visitors, even when they aren’t interested in donating the item. However, do remember that museums are not able to provide any appraisal information. University departments are also sometimes willing to help research objects, and (for a fee) you can contact an appraiser to find out more about your item. [Kathryn S. McCloud]


Have you ever researched a family heirloom? What did you discover?

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