A small intrusion of real life

One of the interesting part of emerging from my little conservation/museum studies bubble is trying to explain what the hell it is that I do, training as an objects conservator.  I spend a great deal of time getting vaguely terrified-yet-interested looks, which leads to explaining what object conservation is.  The short explanation?  Whatever archaeologists dig up (or whatever’s found in a museum store-room), I put it back together, or keep it from falling apart further.

Except, really, that’s awfully vague, and there is much more to it than that.  However, because it’s so complex, we as conservators tend to oversimplify, and by doing so, cheapen our work, which isn’t really fair to anyone.  So I’m going to try to offer a longer explanation, of just what it is I do when I receive an object for conservation.  This has been on my mind a lot, because when budgets are cut, it’s usually the heritage sector that suffers massive budgetary cuts as well.  And, within that, conservators tend to be the first ones gone.  I offer this without comment, really, but it is something that I think about a lot, with only a year until graduation.

(Multilayered disclaimer:  Things are complex.  This is still a pretty vague explanation of what goes into actual, interventive conservation on an object.  There’s a whole raft of preventative conservation — things like environmental controls — that goes on as well.  And, of course, I’m only a student doing a specific course; this is how I was taught to approach the treatment of an object.  For various reasons, professional conservators, whether working in museums or privately, will have different approaches.  But I’m hoping this goes a little more into what we do.)

So!  Presenting:  What Happens In A Conservation Lab, aka, Why Did That Person In A Lab Coat Start Twitching When All I Did Was Touch This Statue?*

*Don’t do that, unless you’ve been expressly invited to.  For Christ’s sake, don’t touch things.  Yes, even stone.  And if you even think about touching a painting, I will actually chew your hand off.

So!  I have received an object that needs some kind of interventive conservation word done!  For simplicity’s sake, let’s say it’s smaller than a breadbox and relatively light, so only needs benchwork.  The first think I’ll do is make sure paperwork is in order; that the accession number on the object and on the paperwork matches up, and I’ll create laboratory records (or pull ones if it’s been treated before).  Then I look at it.  For hours.  I’ll examine it under magnification, noting anything that’s wrong or might need work.  Seriously; I will look at this thing for a very, very long time, relative to its size and, usually, importance.  A condition report is written, generally describing the object as well as any irregularities — for example, if I had a dry wood object, I’d note how dusty/dirty it is, any cracks or checks visible, if there’s mould or fungus visible, or any other damage or potential damage, in addition to size, colour, etc.  The object is photographed and, if it’s metal or contains metallic parts, x-rayed.

Following the initial accession is a massive amount research, particularly if it’s a type of object I’ve not worked with before.  I will usually, though not exclusively, look up:  information about what it’s made from down to the molecular level (that is, if it’s a feather or has feather components, I’m looking up how keratin is formed…), decay of said material(s), any references for similar objects and how they were treated, potential treatments in general, the technology/ies that went into making it, similar objects if it needs to be identified, and complete chemical and physical properties of potential treatment options.  I’ll also research cultural context, if appropriate.

Somewhat simultaneously with this, I’ll be doing intensive analysis of the object.  High-powered microscopy is pretty common, and I also have access to a scanning electron microscope, which is pretty cool in and of itself.  Even cooler, it has an attachment that, essentially, allows me to determine the composition of the object, and what percentages of various elements its made up of.  Usually, though, microscopy and/or Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy/FTIR (if I can ethically justify the sample that will need to be taken, and it’s appropriate to the object) analysis suffices.  Various tests done with solvents, etc, may also be done, to determine composition.  Probably other tests/analysis will be run, that I can’t think of just now.

At this point, I’ve got a pretty good idea of a) what the damn thing’s made out of, b) issues that will need to be addressed in order for the object to survive and c) potential treatments, as well as possible reasons to not treat an object.

So, I take my list of potential treatments, and evaluate them.  At this time, too, I evaluate the necessity of interventive conservation at all.  The sort of best-practice ideal of conservation is to return an object to its truest form, which may be more difficult than you think.  Ideally, treatments should be reversible, unnoticeable to the average punter (but easily differentiated from original material), and return the object to that truest form.  These aspects, as well as lot of others, all are examined when treatments are being evaluated.  Additionally, I may decide, for ethical or other reasons, that I cannot treat an object.  If I can justify this sufficiently, I’m allowed to give the object back.  (Obviously, this is a luxury of being a student, and possibly of being a freelance conservator.  It gets a bit stickier if you’re explaining to your employer why, as a White person, I’m not comfortable working with Native American remains that have a dodgy provenance, for example.  Although in that case, I have laws on my side!)  At some point along the way, a complete treatment plan evolves.  Ideally.  As with war, plans are perfect until actual treatment begins.

Treatment can generally be broken down into mechanical and chemical cleaning, followed by repair/stabilisation, and ending with creating either storage or a mounting system, depending on the client’s request.  (Yes, we have real clients!)  I’m sorry this is so vague, but it changes so much with every object, it’s hard to go into details.  Generally, everything gets a good dry dusting or wet cleaning, as the materials allow, and if it’s got corrosion that will be destructive, it’s either removed physically or using chelating agents.  Generally repairs should be unnoticeable, or barely-noticeable, and be done with inert, stable materials; ditto storage or display aspects.  If possible, I’ll do a dry run of a treatment on a sacrificial object, bearing in mind that stuff that’s genuinely old reacts differently, dimensions may be different, etc.  I’ll try to get as close as possible to the actual object being treated, though.  Things like gap-fills, in-painting and unusual adhesives will be tested to determine just the right mix of materials.

Finally, all of the paperwork is regathered — I’ve been keeping written records throughout the process, of course, to track what I do and record the materials and treatments I’ve used for anyone in the future who’ll be working with the object.  A final condition report is written (“It looks better and is not actively rotting anymore.”), and photographs are taken.  As part of the course, I’ve also got to write a one-page treatment report that describes what was done, and recommends things like the temperature, relative humidity and light levels that the object should be exposed to.  If I am very, very, very lucky, the client will glance at this someday, before going on to ignore it.  Usually, it is just ignored, as is the massive pile of paperwork I turn in with the object.  (But I am not bitter…)

So, there you go!  And my God, I can’t believe you read this far.. 🙂


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