NMNH Conservation Program:
What is Conservation?
"...collections not used are useless."
- Rob Waller
What is conservation? Conservation has been called, "the effort to outwit time." This is because the first law of conservation is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the tendency of the universe is towards entropy or decay. This is another way of saying that nothing lasts forever!
Museum conservation is a field dedicated extending the usable life of cultural property for as long as possible. It can take the form of both preventative work (protecting against preventable damage) and interventive conservation (treating an already-specimen or object for stabilization or to repair past damage). Conservation work is conducted in accordance with strict ethical and professional codes to ensure the highest possible standards for responsible collections care.
What does a conservator do? Conservators are responsible for protecting cultural property from any preventable damage. There are a number of agents that can cause deterioration of monuments, sites, and collections.
All of the work of a professional museum conservator is based on methods and materials that are thought best within current research and do not have a negative effect on the future usability of an artifact.
As professionals, conservators are usually required to have undergraduate training in chemistry and physics as well as a field related to collected heritage. This is followed by pre-program internships, then by three years of graduate training in a conservation program or in some cases, by intensive apprenticeships. Graduate training is usually followed by additional internships and fellowships before the candidate achieves recognized status as a conservator. The full process can require 10 or more years. Because modern conservation now grapples with increasingly difficult and unique challenges facing preserving cultural property, conservators usually specialize. Within broad categories such as objects, books and paper, paintings, or textiles, conservators may focus on areas such as modern media, time-based art, ethnographic materials, natural science specimens, and so on.
Still intrigued by conservation? You can find out more at the American Institute for Conservation (AIC).
Examination: identifying an artifact's materials and current condition, so that appropriate plans may be made for its long-term care.
Documentation: noting conditions, both photographically and in writing. If a treatment is necessary, conservators document both "before" and "after" states of the artifact. Documentation records what changes have been made and what materials have been used in treatment, which helps determine future uses for and handling of an artifact.
Treatment: repair or stabilization of an artifact that exhibits signs of damage or instability. Many artifacts are fragile, or simply were never meant to last for decades in what we think of as "human comfort" environments, and may deteriorate rapidly due to what is known as "inherent vice." This accelerates the natural tendency of a material to break down over time. Others, used in hands-on activities, may suffer accidents. A treatment plan dictates what steps should be taken to restore the artifact to a more stable, scientifically useful, or aesthetically acceptable state. Treatments are as varied as artifacts: each is uniquely developed based on the latest research and professional knowledge of the specific case.
- Preventative Care
Preventative care: minimizing harm to all artifacts from the outset. While it is not possible to freeze time, even basic steps such as appropriately regulating temperature and humidity while still recognizing the need for sustainability, and limiting exposure to light can greatly extend am artifact's lifespan. Guidelines for handling, training for staff and volunteers, secure access to collections storage areas, and plans for disasters all contribute to the long-term survival and conservation of objects.
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