[This blog post was written by Emily Rainwater, Conservator for the State Archives of North Carolina.]
Conservation is a holistic approach to the long-term preservation of objects of cultural heritage. Conservation may involve:
In the most basic sense, examination means looking very closely at an object. A conservator will make note of the different types of material used in the piece, as well as how it was constructed. Being able to tell how an object was created is crucial for understanding the best way to take care of it. Conservators also assess the current condition of the object. Is there deterioration, and if so what type and where is it located? Is the object failing structurally? Is there a problem with the aesthetics of the piece, such as a disfiguring stain? Were any repairs made previously, and if so, how are they holding up? Sometimes conservators will use scientific analysis to help them better understand the object.
Documentation works hand in hand with examination. All of those critical findings made during the examination process are written down so that the condition of the object on a particular date is known to future conservators and scholars. Conservators will often take photographs of the object, highlighting any damage, to supplement a written report.
Conservators are also responsible for protecting the collection from the environment, including damage from light, temperature, humidity, pollutants, and pests. By monitoring the storage area, and carefully choosing the materials used to house the objects, conservators try to slow or arrest the deterioration process. Conservators also produce guidelines for safe practices for handling, duplicating, transporting, and displaying objects in order to prevent accidental damage.
Conservation treatment seeks to improve an object’s structure, visual appearance, stability, or long-term aging properties. “Treatment” covers a wide array of practices, ranging from minimal stabilization to more invasive, and complex, full treatment. Sometimes, despite our preventive care, a disaster happens, so collections may need emergency response and recovery. For example, if there is a water leak in the building, conservators will work to salvage the collections – this also falls under the treatment category.
The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) is the professional organization for conservators in the United States. There are many types of conservators, such as those that specialize in books, paper, sculpture, wooden artifacts, textiles, photographs, and ethnographic objects. At all times, conservators are guided by the principles set forth in the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.