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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. Photograph by the Conservation Section.

Two crucial steps in conservation are examination and documentation. Condition reports act as the way for conservators to mark down critical information about an object's conditions, thus documenting condition for self-reference and for future conservators to refer to. Cassia Balogh, a Conservation intern and graduate student at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, explains what condition reports are and why they are basic yet fundamentally important in conservation.

Cassia Balough examines and documents the condition of a sea turtle before treatment. Photography by Emily Dong.
Cassia Balogh examines and documents the condition of a sea turtle before treatment.Photography by Emily Dong.

What are condition reports, and how do they fit into the conservation field?

Cassia Balogh (CB): Condition reports are exactly what they sound like: reports on the conditions of objects. They're important in letting us know whether an object has changed and what kind of treatments have been used on an object. With loans, condition reports are used to record information on an object when it leaves its collection and when it comes back. Sometimes, a condition report will be a precursor to a treatment, so we can have "before" and "after" documentation.

If someone who has no idea what conservators do asked you "what's the big deal about condition reports," how would you respond?

CB: Condition reports are extremely important—they give crucial documentation of an object's past as well as current status.

What does a condition report exactly consist of?

CB: A condition report contains a description of an object, detailed measurements, notes on natural change of the object (called "inherent vice"), notes on damage inflicted onto the object (called "vice"), and the approximate age of any changes to the object. Oftentimes, conservators choose to include further analysis, such as the results of ultraviolet (UV) light and X-ray testing. While verbal descriptions are important in reporting an object's condition, inclusion of photo documentation in a report helps to further visualize condition.

What kind of condition reports have you been working on recently?

CB: I work on a variety of objects. Some different objects include taxidermy, a mammoth tooth, a large ornate silver punch bowl, ceramics, a whip, and paintings.

Condition reports seem like an important but perhaps tedious task—do you like doing condition reports?

CB: I like condition reports when there's nothing wrong with an object. I think that condition reports are extremely valuable, and I appreciate them immensely. When I'm writing them, it's a long process of always needing to go back in and adding in notes that I originally missed—it's a time intensive and detailed task.

What do you think is something overlooked in condition reporting?

CB: A good condition report is extremely valuable, but it takes experience and training for someone to become skilled at knowing what they're looking at and what they're looking for. Much of condition reporting is knowing what manufacturing techniques look like—this is how you can distinguish between damage and something that simply stems from manufacturing.

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