Conservation is concerned with how material is preserved as it moves from the present into the future. This material may be books in libraries, documents in archives, objects or artwork in museums, or works owned by a community, a family or an individual. It is the conservator’s responsibility to help ensure the material’s protection and safe passage into the future.
Art conservation is a complex and highly interdisciplinary task, requiring a base knowledge that may include; methods of manufacture, the mechanisms of damage as well as the cultural significance of a given work. Art conservators use history to understand why and when a work was made and science to understand how it was made and what has happened to it over its history.
Thorough examination and documentation is always the first step in a conservation project. This involves assessing the original structure and materials of the work, defining the extent of deterioration (damage and loss) and to ascertain any previous restorations or other interventions.
The terms conservation and restoration are often used interchangeably, but they represent very different objectives and activities. Restoration’s objectives for a given work can consist of any one or a combination of the following: to modify the appearance of, to reduce the visual impact of deterioration or damage and to restore the visual continuity. Although conservation may involve restoration, it is usually more engaged with preventing future deterioration and damage to a work.
Preventative conservation can take place when one brings knowledge of the mechanisms of deterioration to an action plan to provide the best possible options for the long-term care of a given work. Take for instance, the example of a newspaper page turning yellow and brittle over time. With the knowledge of how the cellulose fibers in the paper age, this process involves the formation of acid which in turn contributes to the discoloration and deterioration of the paper, a conservator would have the means to take the appropriate steps to mitigate this naturally occurring process.
Preventative conservation is a predictive activity, often involving whole collections of works. For example, the operational aspects of air-conditioning in museums are often the concern of conservators. The rate of chemical and physical reactions involved in the deterioration process increase with higher environmental temperatures and also with cyclic changes in humidity (the concentration of water vapor present in the air). As a result, materials may become brittle and crack when exposed to over time.
It makes sense to have continuous and stable air-conditioning, but on the other hand, air-conditioning is energy-intensive and expensive to run. Understanding the issues, weighing the risks and advising the client on the best options for the collection is one of the many jobs for the conservator.
Conservation also requires exceptional craftsmanship and art-making skills such as those employed in the original creation of the work; being able to replicate the paint layers, carve a section of a work to replace a lost part or cast a sheet of handmade paper to use as a fill for a large hole are just some examples of these kinds of skills.
There are also conservation-specific skills. The torn edges of a painting’s canvas support may need to be rewoven thread-by-thread. A hole may require a patch which will then require a complex fill of the ground layer, paint and varnish that replicates the surrounding painting.
In conclusion, an owner of a given work will need to find a conservator that they can trust. Someone that they believe will do what is best for their own particular situation. If you have a present or future need for a conservationist, please do not hesitate to inquire further.