In this page you can find general information on conservation, how objects deteriorate, the type of work conservators carry out and how to look after your own collections.
Conservation, also referred to as conservation-restoration, is the profession devoted to the preservation of cultural artifacts and places. It comprises the activities of documentation, research, conservation treatments and preventive care and maintenance. Conservators work under established codes of ethics and conduct which include working abiding to principles of minimal intervention, use of compatible and reversible materials and full documentation of any work undertaken on an artifact.
Conservation intents to preserve not only the materials that conform the artwork or cultural object but also any values or beliefs intrinsic in them. For this reason conservators will try to understand the context in which each object was created and its history before any interventive treatment is carried out. Some ‘damages’ can be indicative of some historical use and need to be preserved. For example, the same type of treatment that would be applied to a modern oil painting might not be appropriate for an aboriginal painting which has been used for ritual purposes in the past.
Factors of deterioration: Why do things deteriorate?
The main factors that contribute to the deterioration of objects are:
- Temperature and Relative Humidity: High temperature and humidity levels work together to speed up the process of chemical and biological deterioration. Organic materials such as leather, wood, fibres in textile and wood pulp in paper absorb and release moisture in the air, resulting in expansions and contractions which can cause physical damage to the object over time.
- Light: Cumulative exposure to light causes colours to fade and can also cause embrittlement of organic materials such as textile and paper fibres
- Pests: Organic materials such as paper, textiles, wood and leather provide food sources for pests such as silverfish, woodborers, termites, carpet beetles, moths and fungi
- Pollution: Dust and chemicals in the air present in industrialised countries can cause a lot of harm to cultural artifact by reacting with the surface they are deposited such as acid rain affecting stone or corrosion on metals. Harmful gasses emitted by non archival materials such as acidic mountboards or formaldehide in wood composite display furniture can also cause irreversible damage to artifacts.
More information about factors of deterioration can be found on:
How to look after your personal treasures and collections
Caring for different materials:
The following link provides useful conservation advice on how to care for different types of materials:
How to care for your paintings:
Common conservation treatments for paintings
Typical conservation treatments undertaken by conservators on paintings include:
- Cleaning: Paintings are often covered by layers of dust and grime and yellowed varnishes. Cleaning can involve removal of surface dirt or a degraded varnish, both of which distort and cover the original colours and details of the artworks.
- Structural repairs: Paintings on canvas can presents various types of structural damages such as tears, holes, bulges, dents and creases. These can be repaired by realigning and mending torn threads, canvas inserts and flattening of canvas deformations.
- Consolidation: Paint can often separate or flake off from its support, normally as a consequence of water damage or humidity fluctuations. Consolidation treatment involves introducing a conservation grade adhesive in between the paint and its support to return its stability.
- Reintegration of losses: When an artwork presents losses of original paint, these can be reintegrated by application of a reversible filling material followed by inpainting the loss with a matching colour. Inpainting is always restricted to the losses and will never cover the original paint. Large losses of paint where the image has been lost can be reintegrated with neutral colours to make them less noticeable.
- Restretching: Often a canvas has lost its original tension, sometimes loosing some of its attaching tacks. In these cases conservators can undertake what is called ‘strip lining’, which means attaching new strips of canvas to the edges of the oroginal canvas to add strength to it. When a work is restretched its original stretcher will always be kept unless it is in a state beyond repair, in which case a new stretched can be added to the work.
- Reframing: as a preventive conservation measure, paintings are often reframed with a protective backing board, which stops accumulation of dust on the back of the canvas, as well as protecting the canvas from humidity fluctuations and from accidental damages when handling the artwork.
Conservation on the net:
The following videos, produced by the Heritage Conservation Centre conservators on the ocasion of the exhibition ‘THe Story of Yeh Chi Wei’ at the National Art Gallery of Singapore, show an introduccion to a variety of conservation treatments:
Reintegration (filling and inpainting)