So one of your treasures has just been damaged. What do you do?
First, almost any object of art and history can be saved. Unless it is completely burned to carbon or vaporized something can be done.
So - before you do anything take photos of the object and it's damage. Do not move it or pick up any pieces until you do. If this is something damaged in shipment, leave it in the box or crate, and photograph it in place, and make sure you get good photos of the container and packing materials. All of this documentation is important for insurance purposes.
You can now collect all the pieces if it is broken. But first determine where you are moving them to and make sure you have a clear path and space. Start with the largest pieces first. If the size is managable pack or wrap individual pieces in tissue paper, zip loc bags, or bubble wrap if they are inorganic (ceramic, stone, glass, plastic, metal). Do not put lots of pieces in a box or bag where they can rub and bang around. If you have an organic object then pack fragments in tissue paper, undyed linen, paper bags, tyvek, or any material that can breathe. Organic objects can be composed of wood, leather, shell, ivory, bone, textile, and more. Please make sure to collect all pieces, even the small ones.
If your object has water damage move it to a nearby table on top of a clean towel (*Note - If it is a sewer backup or hazardous spill then get an expert with proper protective personal equipment do this). If the object is inorganic (ceramic, stone, glass, metal, plastic), you can have a bucket or tray of clean water and gently rinse, then you can drain any water trapped inside or in crevices, and pat it dry with clean soft towels - do not rub or wipe surfaces as that can make things worse. Then run a dehumidifer or fan to dry everything out. If you have an inorganic object (wood, leather, shell, bone, textile, etc.) it can be more complex. Some dyes and paints and adhesives dissolve in water. Also since organic objects absorb and release moisture you want to dry them in a very controlled way. So it is best to not be aggressive but gentle. You do want to slowly dry as well as to have the ambient temperature cool (at or under 70 degrees) to avoid mold and mildew growth. Since time can be critical for organic objects you should contact a conservator right away.
If something is spilled on your object - or if outdoors and it is stained or vandalized with spray paint - do not attempt to clean yourself. Home cleaning can make things worse. So call a conservator.
Major causes of damage can range from pets to people, fires and floods, earthquakes and vibration, spills, and more. Make sure people and pets are safe first, and when you can then follow the suggestions above, then call a conservator.
You will be amazed how well a broken or damaged object can be restored!
Preservation and conservation of historic and artistic objects, artifacts, and structures is deeply enmeshed with the "environment". In conservation we define the environment as the local physical space in intimate association with an artifact or object; this can be mostly air with it's chemistry, moisture, and particulates, or, it can be soil or seawater. It can be a very complex and technical subject but often what is most important are core principles. If the environment around an object is steady and stable for long periods of time the object reaches an equilibrium with it and the condition of the object can be very stable with a low rate of deterioration. In fluctuating or unstable environments damage and deterioration is often greatly accelerated. One of the most dramatic examples of this are marine archaeological artifacts. An excavator may find a wooden artifact in near perfect condition because it was quickly buried in silt which was oxygen-free (anaerobic) and not in seabed areas with worms or shifting currents where artifacts could be disturbed. Over hundreds or thousands of years the artifact has lain in a very stable environmental cocoon. Once the artifact is uncovered and raised above the water it's environment has changed radically. It is surrounded in a "sea" of air which is drier than the waterlogged wood, it is surrounded by oxygen, and most likely surrounded by higher temperatures. The artifact will immediately begin to loose moisture, salts from ocean water will begin to migrate and effloresce, oxygen and higher temperatures will accelerate chemical processes, and mold and fungi may begin to form. Most organics including wood are very sensitive and responsive to moisture - physically swelling or shrinking. So in a matter of days our once pristine wooden artifact may be distorted, splitting, and falling to pieces. A slower but no less significant process happens to historic objects and structures. A wooden chair will respond to a change in environment when the relative humidity changes by either swelling or shrinking. So, when you are told that 50% relative humidity is what is recommended for furniture you have to first and foremost understand the environment where the chair has been - this may be fine for a chair from a moderate and temperate environment like the East Coast of the USA but it would be disasterous for a chair from arid regions like the Southwest with it's far lower relative humidity. Similar things happened 30 years ago when historic houses started putting in museum quality HVAC systems - and the change of relative humidity in the interiors in contrast to the exteriors started causing all kinds of visible damage after a short time. So knowledgable conservators do not follow an absolute published number for RH (though for light levels and exposure we do) - we have to first and foremost keep the core principle of environmental stability in mind - or simply put, keeping it "Relative".
What about our pristine marine wooden artifact? First, keep it wet - preferably in sea water at first. If it came from cold water keep it cold. And then it becomes a matter of treatment or intervention. Soaking it in purer and purer water to remove salts and then adding a bulking chemical such as PEG (Polyethylene Gylcol) which, at the right molecular weights, will replace water in the cells of the wood and minimize dimensional shrinking. In some instances using freeze-drying after the PEG treatment to sublime off the water is the best method for a waterlogged artifact - for larger artifacts this is impractical. Then our artifact will have to be slowly acclimated and housed or exhibited in an enviroment that will minimize dimensional change while still inhibiting conditions for mold and fungal growth. And it has to be very closely monitored as there may be chemical changes that don't become apparent until decades later (the conserved ship Vasa is a case in point). Notice that we have to put a lot of energy, time, and expense into the process to preserve something that was once very stable. Often that is what conservation and preservation is all about.
I thought it would be fun to share with you the thought process - the "method in our madness" - of a conservator.
When someone first brings me an object, or the first time I see a sculpture, monument, historic structure, or artifact, I walk around it physically, visually, and mentally. My mind registers millions of subtle details about form, color, and texture on my journey around it. I personally find taking photos helps me immensely in this initial examination. I start with the object in it's overall context on all sides and the move in to see sections and details. I look for evidence of how it was made, how it has lived to this point in time, and evidence of any alterations, repairs, refinishing, and damages. When it comes to damage I look for physical damage that can range from small abrasions to cracks to the entire object being smashed or in fragments large and small. I also look for chemical damages ranging from being over-cleaned to corrosion, salt damage, sulphates, bio-films and fungal growth, and more. We use light - raking light across a surface will show you it's topography and relief. Using bright direct light on dark object will show you surface and things like corrosion on metals; using soft bounced indirect light on highly reflective objects like glass or silver will allow you to see the fine details of their surfaces down to fine abrasions under the microscope. We also often use other sources in the electro-magnetic spectrum such as UV light and IR examination that can range from a UV flashlight to an expensive IR thermal video camera. These sources allow us to see and document what may be largely invisible to our eyes from previous repairs and fills, stains and adhesives, under-drawings and paintings, to even seeing where moisture seeps into monuments and historic buildings. And often it can be very helpful to look with a binocular microscope - starting at low power and then moving to higher magnification for areas of interest.
The result of this deep looking at an object or building is a survey -we make pages of notes - and in some instances this can lead to deeper forensic investigation and testing with both chemical and high tech methods from x-ray and gamma ray sources to ultrasound and CAT scans, and x-ray diffraction, Fourier transform spectroscopy, and neutron activation analysis. The depth of analysis and method you use really depends on the need to understand the object and how precisely you need to measure it's condition, as well as the questions that need to be answered about it. And honestly how much money is available to pursue those questions.
All of this doesn't stop when we have our treatment plan and put it into action. Conservation is a hands-on discipline, We hold the objects, use many specialized hand tools, apply chemicals, we clean, align, mend, and fill. We are continually in Deep focus on every minute part of the surface and making millions of judgements in our "seeing" which guides our process - how soft or how hard, how long, when to stop, when something isn't working, when to try a different method.
And then we enact the visual dance again when the treatment is finished. We walk around the object at the end as we did at the beginning. Duplicating as precisely as we can the photographs we took before - just so. Shown side-by-side you can see exactly how the object or component of a building was affected by the treatment.
I am often asked by curators and collectors what is the most important thing they can do to preserve an object or building of art and history. My first reply is "Don't Break It!" - but after we laugh about the obvious the real answer is: "Look. Deeply Look..."
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.