Conservation – a Complex Profession

“WhAsleighat is it that you do, exactly?” is a question conservators are often asked when met for the first time.

As an emerging conservator, sometimes it’s difficult to quickly describe the daily work I perform. When many people hear the word conservation, they immediately think of protecting wildlife.

The conservation of art and historic artifacts seems to be a professional field that goes unseen “in the ether;” it doesn’t usually get a lot of daily attention. Since most labs are located in the basements of libraries or museums, the “magic” of turning dirty and destroyed art into new found treasure goes unbeknownst to the public – and often unbeknownst to even the staff of the institution! That’s because it’s our job, in collaboration with a curator or librarian, to preserve and restore the integrity of an object so it can be viewed or used without the distraction of being broken or dirty.

To put it simply, we work hard to fix important historical objects so:

1. It lasts longer than it would have without treatment.

2. You don’t immediately see the repairs. Instead, what you see is the historic object.

When you walk into a museum and are looking at a 17th century wood stringed instrument, you might become so intrigued that you study it closely enough to where you see evidence of tiny holes that resulted from a hungry beetle larvae, feasting upon the wood as if it was a dinner buffet. What might not be apparent is that this once-infested instrument underwent specialized treatment in order to kill the insects.  That it was then repaired to fix any broken parts from the damage, and then a bit of restoration might have been performed so the damage is not the first thing you notice about the instrument. Hopefully, you notice the inlaid carved mollusk shell instead.

It’s like that with paper, too. It’s possible that when you’re viewing a historic map on display, you notice a faint discoloration along the edge of the paper but don’t think much about it. Often, paper documents suffer water damage and can be stained to the extent that the writing is hard to read. In this case, a conservator will carefully treat the document by washing it, using chemistry to understand how to remove the staining, but not the printed ink.

Intellectually you know someone must keep all of those historic works of art and literature from utter ruin, but you might not know that there’s an entire specialized field dedicated to the science of understanding why pieces of cultural heritage are degrading – and how they can be preserved. In fact, it’s so important that the field of art and historic artifact conservation is split up into different specialties. Since “art” can literally be composed of any material, from fine chocolate to dried animal skin, there are conservators that spend an entire lifetime researching and learning about why these materials exhibit characteristic degradation. Innovative solutions are constantly tested for treatment and documentation as technology develops.

A paintings conservator who works with painted objects knows in-depth the physics of how an improperly stretched canvas interacts with the aged layers of gesso.  They study oil paint and how the stretcher is causing characteristic crack patterns in the paint. They also understand the aging difficulties of unbound paint vs. over-bound paint, and why the varnish of a painting turned cloudy.

On the other hand, a photograph conservator deals with any object that contains photography. Did you know that there are dozens, if not hundreds of different types of photographic processes? A photograph conservator can examine a photograph and tell you the type of photographic emulsion, dye, or pigment that was used to create the image, the technique of photography, and why a photograph looks silvery and mirror-like.

There are objects conservators, furniture and textile conservators, ethnographic art conservators, paper conservators, metal conservators, outdoor sculpture conservators, and even electronic media (audio & video) conservators.

Even within specialties, there are sub-specialties! As a book conservator, I am particularly interested in unique structures of books that compensate for extra attached media.  The disparate degradation problems between an album and the attached components, such as newspaper clippings or photographs can be particularly challenging. Since I enjoy tackling this particular type of problem solving, you might say that albums are my sub-specialty.

So far, one of the most artfully crafted responses I’ve heard from a conservator answering the question “what is that you do?” was from book conservator, Gary Frost. His advice when faced with the question at a dinner party is to explain succinctly, “I assure the resilience of book transmission.” His other option, which I cannot imagine helps to clarify the situation, is to tell them that a conservator is a “longitudinal ethnographer” (which can be interpreted as a euphemism for preservation).

Simply put, our job is so multifaceted and specialized (as well as ever-changing in the digital age!) that conservators have a hard time summing it up. Just as I am obligated in my job with keeping abreast of new literature and scientific discoveries in conservation treatment, I imagine I will spend the rest of my career trying to best answer the question, “So, what is that you do… exactly?”

Ashleigh Schieszer (PLCH) — Book and Paper Conservator


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