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Canid skull from the US Exploring Expedition (1838-42), treated with mercuric chloride.

Canid skull from the US Exploring Expedition (1838-42). The skull had been treated with mercuric chloride as a preservative during the expedition. Later exposure to ultraviolet radiation from window light or fluorescent lamps caused the mercuric chloride to convert to mercury sulfides and metallic mercury.

Skull with Salt Stains

"...collections not used are useless."
- Rob Waller

The skull of a Coyote, or Canis latrans, showing discoloration due to mercury salts used in its initial preparation. Photograph by the Conservation Section. Quote from Collections not used are useless collections. I.P. SoFacto 1991. Remains To Be Seen. 4(2): 4.

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!

Two photographs showing a damaged moth specimen and a damaged botanical specimen before and after conservation treatmentTop image of butterfly by the Conservation Section. Bottom image of mold damage to herbarium specimen by the Botany Division.

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).

Mastodon Tooth

Examination: identifying an artifact's materials and current condition, so that appropriate plans may be made for its long-term care. Image Left: Using ultraviolet-induced, visible fluorescence to detect otherwise invisible numbering on a mammoth tooth. Image by Cassia Balogh

Photograph of broken Mastodon rib

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.Image Left: Documenting damage discovered on a paleontological specimen on exhibit. Image by the Conservation Team.

Photograph of treatment being conducted on a mammal skin

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. Image Left: Conservation of an originally heavily damaged glass eye in a sea turtle specimen to ready it for exhibition. Image by the Conservation Team.

Preventative Care
Photograph of proper housing to prevent object damage during movement

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. Image Left: Specialized packing for a fragile human skull from a 16th century European burial along the Chesapeake Bay. Image by Rebecca Kaczkowski.

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