Most people think that conservation is one of two things. We either repair old things or we use high-tech science on works of art. While those are sometimes true many current conservators spend an increasing amount of our time in preventive conservation.
What is preventive conservation?
It is preventing deterioration and damage to art and historic collections and also historic buildings through inspection and monitoring, controlling the environment, and having guidelines and training for people who interact with the collections.
A great example include Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Programs where there is consistent monitoring and logging of pests and rodents in buildings and exhibits and proactively eliminating food sources and entry points and a protocol for inspection of everything coming into the museum. You can do the same thing in your home. Inspect regularly for signs of insects and rodents. Keep food secured. Put out insect traps and check each week to see what you catch. And most importantly inspect your art or antiques often with a good light - look for telltale holes or droppings. If you find them wrap the piece in polyethylene bags or sheet and move it away from your other collections and contact an expert.
A common sense example is to make sure that everyone who touches or handles collections objects in trained in their handling and movement, that they have the appropriate equipment (gloves, trays, dollies, etc), and that there is a clear path from where the object is to where it is being moved and clear place to put it down. Always handle antique chairs by the seat rails and not the back. Always handle ceramics and silverware by the body and not the handles. Keep two hands on the objects and art at all times and wear clean cotton gloves or nitrile gloves.
There is much emphasis on the Environment. Museums have far stricter standards that most home owners but there are still common sense things you can do at home. Do not let direct sunlight to fall on art or historic objects like textiles, paintings, works on paper, photographs, and just about anything with dyes or pigments or that is organic. Usually ceramics, stone, and metals are more durable unless they are painted. If you have a framed work then try to have UV blocking acrylic or glass in the framing - you'll still get some light damage but not as much. Keep your antiques or art in the most stable place in the home - away from windows and doors and fireplaces - and away from external walls or areas that tend to be warmer and more humid. Try to keep humidity down, if you can, and higher relative humidity can lead to swelling of wood and organic materials, and it can lead to mold or mildew. Try to keep it close to %50 RH with minimal fluctuations if you live in the East Coast. Where it is drier - such as in the southwest and west - then try to keep things stable at the lower RH where you live.
Preventive conservation also means thinking ahead. What about children and pets? How can you store or exhibit your art or antiques in the best way to prevent damage? Does it sit on a table there the cat can easily get to it? Is it low enough on the wall for the kids to accidentally hit it?
So just think about preventive conservation as baby-proofing your art and objects from foreseeable damage. Having a preventive mindset is one of the most important things you can do to preserve your treasures.
This past week this story hit the international news about a well-meaning elderly woman in Spain who decided to "fix" a deteriorating mural in her Church.
Below is a link to the NPR story on this with the audio featuring my colleague Joyce Hill Stoner of the University of Delaware / Winterthur Program in conservation on the issues involved and why you should consult a professional conservator first.
This blog is for general advice for collectors and museum colleagues. I also hope to feature projects with the kind permission of my clients. As always client confidentiality is first and foremost - but it is helpful to share some details about the conservation ethic and methods with the wider public. Feel free to ask me anything as long as it is a general question.
Here are some a few answers I give to the most common questions:
The first rule whenever anything gets damaged or broken. Save EVERYTHING! Even the smallest of fragments. There are actually very few damaged objects that cannot be repaired or improved through conservation. I am often asked by clients, "Is it worth it?". My answer always is, "It depends...It is up to you to decide if money is the primary value, or whether your emotional connection to the object and wanting to repair or improve it's condition is of more value."
Along with my colleagues in Museums we in conservation abide by a professional code of ethics. We cannot appraise or establish a value for objects. We are happy to refer you to an appraiser for those professional services.