Treatment of objects

Jane Bassett


As we look at the many changes that are now occurring in objects conservation, perhaps the single unifying trend is that of increased diversity, not only in the types of materials which are being preserved but also in our approach to treatment. Within the conservation field, the specialization of objects has always been one of great variety. In recent years as the types of artifacts being considered for conservation treatment have increased and broadened, so too have the types of specialists with which we work. such specialists as natural history curators, concrete coring contractors, preservation bureaucrats and Native American elders can be added to the more traditional list of scientific and art historical advisors. The definition of our responsibility as objects conservators is also evolving and broadening, forcing us to reevaluate the decision making processes which we go through in developing treatment. More perhaps than with other conservation specialties, it has become increasingly difficult to separate the treatment of objects from the other aspects of our discipline: environmental concerns, materials analysis, biological control and preventive measures. The following is a brief summary of some of the trends which are becoming apparent in the field, both in terms of approach and technique. Specific examples will be illustrated at the meeting.

1. Many objects labs are moving towards treatment based on minimum intervention. This often goes hand-in-hand with preventive care including better storage and exhibit environments as well as increased education for those who handle the collections to prevent accidental damage. Treatments based on minimum intervention often go hand-in-hand with the concept of reversibility.

2. By working with consultants, many ethnographic labs are taking a more interdisciplinary approach to the treatment of cultural artifacts both in regards to repatriation issues and in the preparation of artifacts for exhibition. By using outside specialists, it has become possible to use the artifacts for interpretation of their native culture rather than simply viewing them through a Western European cultural bias.

3. There is an increasing awareness that part of the decision making process in designing a treatment is allocation of resources. Many labs are beginning to find that there are a finite amount of resources available (each time a certain amount of time is allocated to one project, less or more time and resources can be allocated to another). Yet in these days of tight budgets and heavy exhibition schedules, many objects labs have found that there are special circumstances in which routine treatment is not appropriate. In these cases, the importance of thorough preliminary research has ensured that treatment mistakes often made in the past were not repeated.

4. Objects conservators have been increasingly called upon as advisors and contractors for large-scale civic projects including outdoor sculpture and architectural projects. These jobs are generally run in conjunction with parks administration, public art agencies, architects, city, state or federal bureaucracies, all of which have their own established standards. To make these cooperative efforts successful, considerable effort is being put towards learning their specification language and standards of practice. The Buffalo AIC pre-session will have dealt extensively with this issue.

5. Objects conservators are becoming more involved in the preparation of mounts for storage, exhibition and travel as an integral part of treatment.

6. Our specialty is characterized by its continued attention to developments in other disciplines and their adaptation to our own needs.

In summary, we are going outside of the museum world in which many of us were trained including seeking consultation from cultural experts and collaborating with established professional or bureaucratic preservation organizations. We are advising on more large scale civic projects both in disaster response as well as coordinated preservation efforts. We are putting more emphasis on preliminary work before treatment is begun while struggling to determine how our funds and expertise can best be appropriated. Our growing attention to preventive conservation causes our treatments to become less and less interventive. Finally, we continue to develop new treatment techniques and to borrow materials and techniques from other disciplines.

1992 | Buffalo