American Conservation Consortium

Nationwide Collections Preservation Services
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Frequently Asked Questions

Table of Contents

  1. What is the best way to contact American Conservation Consortium?
  2. Does American Conservation Consortium offer products for sale?
  3. What Is conservation?
  4. How can my museum/organization fund conservation costs?
     

What is the best way to contact American Conservation Consortium?

Staff is often working at various sites throughout the country.  Therefore, it may be several days or even weeks before we are back in the office or studio.  Generally, the best method of contact is by email at acc@conservator.com.  As a backup, it is a good idea to leave a voice mail at 603-679-8307.  Of course, if we are there, we will answer your call!


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Does American Conservation Consortium offer products for sale?

Except for quantity purchases of commercial dehumidifiers by DEC-ThermaStor and digital low-tech environmental controls, we do not offer any products for sale.  However, we do provide supplier links for such items.  We offer the dehumidifiers and controls as a service to the museum community at a deeply discounted-to-the-trade price. 
 

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What is Conservation?

Stated simply, conservation is the preservation (minimization of future deterioration), stabilization (consolidation of existing deterioration), and restoration (repair of existing deterioration) of historic and artistic objects. The causes of deterioration are studied to better understand how they can be minimized. Environmental conditions are monitored and adjusted to approach the optimum level. Treatment materials and processes are tested for stability, safety with regard to the objects for which they are intended, and effectiveness. Hand skills and knowledge are developed constantly. Education and dissemination of information are promoted, as is fastidious documentation of treatments.

Early restorers used methods and techniques that were handed down from one generation to the next and were undoubtedly borrowed from the appropriate artistic and craft traditions. Due to the effect of the former guild system in Europe, many of these techniques and materials were kept secret and a mystique grew about restoration. In the second half of the 19th century, economic factors came into play. Values of historic pieces were rising and demand was high. Restoration ethics (or lack thereof) encouraged the execution of invisible repairs and visual "improvements" to pieces, culminating in an entire industry which produced fakes and pieces assembled from old parts.

By the early 20th century, artistic and historic objects were being examined in a more academic and scholarly manner. Their importance as cultural documents was being realized and, as such, the need to preserve them in an unaltered or "original" state became evident. A number of individuals in the museum world recognized the benefit of looking at deterioration and preservation from an interdisciplinary perspective. They noted that science, particularly chemistry, could be applied to better understand the compositional nature of a piece. This knowledge, combined with anthropological and art historical study of the object and its original production techniques led to a better understanding of deterioration processes. While the secrecy of traditional restoration had prohibited information exchange, early conservators became committed to open communication of ideas and techniques. For the first time, preservation and treatment processes could be examined objectively.

As the conservation profession developed, it borrowed techniques of examination and analysis from many different fields. These included the use of X-radiographs to view hidden areas of a piece, and the determination of an unidentified finish by infra-red spectrometry. Original conservation research added new information. All of this led to the realization that many traditional restoration techniques, while providing immediate visual or structural improvement, were actually causing long-term deterioration. Research and testing advanced at an ever-increasing pace.

Early training opportunities for conservators consisted primarily of hands-on experience similar to a traditional crafts apprenticeship. In order to fill a growing need for broad-based training, graduate conservation training programs were developed in the 1960's and 1970's. Requirements for admission to these Masters degree programs include a Bachelor's degree with significant course work in art history, chemistry, and studio art. Most programs also require experience as a technician or volunteer in a museum or conservation laboratory. The graduate programs generally include two years of courses in art techniques, materials science, methods of analysis, advanced chemistry, museum studies, conservation theory, and other related areas, in addition to hands-on work in the laboratory. Generally, the third year is an internship in a conservation laboratory under the supervision of a professionally-respected conservator in the chosen area of specialization. The great benefit of attendance at one of the programs is the condensation of information and opinions that might otherwise require a lifetime to obtain.

Most treatment of horse-drawn vehicles in the past has been greatly influenced by craft traditions that dictated smooth, "new" surfaces. Little attention was paid to original surfaces or materials, except to serve as a model for remanufacture or repainting, far too often executed in an inferior manner. A conservation approach to carriages is just beginning to have wide-spread impact. Eventually, a much greater number of original vehicles and surfaces can be preserved by utilizing a conservation approach to treatment.

Conservation Ethics

With the development of the conservation profession as we know it today, the need became apparent for a document outlining conservation attitudes. This was undertaken by the American Institute for Conservation (Washington, DC, 202-452-9545). The AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice is embraced by all conservation specialties. This treatise represents and summarizes the essence of the conservation attitude which flavors every conservation activity and truly sets conservation aside as a unique profession. It is recommended that vehicle caretakers familiarize themselves with the Code and use it to guide their dealings both with conservators and with the objects themselves (copies are available from AIC).  The Code's Preamble nicely explains its entire concept:

"The primary goal of conservation professionals, individuals with extensive training and special expertise, is the preservation of cultural property. Cultural property consists of individual objects, structures, or aggregate collections. It is material which has significance that may be artistic, historical, scientific, religious, or social, and it is an invaluable and irreplaceable legacy that must be preserved for future generations. In striving to achieve this goal, conservation professionals assume certain obligations to the cultural property, to its owners and custodians, to the conservation profession, and to society as a whole. This document sets forth the principles that guide conservation professionals and others who are involved in the care of cultural property."

Integrity of the Object

Perhaps the most important aspect of conservation ethics is an intense respect for the integrity of the object, which influences all activities of a conservator, from recommendations for exhibition to proposed treatments. The original or historic character and components of a piece must be preserved whenever possible. It is important to distinguish between original appearance and original components, which many times exhibit the effects of age and use. Returning a piece to original appearance may necessitate destruction of important information about the materials and techniques used by the maker, in addition to obliterating cultural information about how the piece was used and eliminating the subtle marks of age. Additionally, it should be noted that the original appearance is not necessarily the most important one. Alterations, both intentional or accidental, may have been made to the object that are important from an< historic or cultural perspective. Examples include a sword slash on a table inflicted by Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War, wear on a chair rung, indicating generations of supported feet, or alterations to a carriage by the original maker a number of years after its manufacture.

Stable, Reversible Materials

Another important element of conservation ethics is the use of materials and techniques that are stable and well-tested. It is important to know that a material will not deteriorate quickly and, more importantly, that treatment processes will not damage the object. Many an object has been significantly harmed because an uninformed individual used a cleaner or varnish that slowly but steadily degraded the underlying surface. It is important to remember that such deterioration does not necessarily occur immediately, but over time its effects can be compounded severely.

Additionally, every attempt must be made to use processes and materials that are reversible or removable, both immediately following use and after aging. This is critical for several reasons. Materials used in conservation treatments are subject to the same deteriorative processes as is the object. They will not last forever and the object eventually will have to be re-treated. Reversibility also provides for implementation of new and better treatments in the future by allowing removal of the initial one without causing damage. Finally, there is always a chance something might go wrong during a treatment and reversibility insures being able to attempt it again.

Documentation

Documentation of a piece's initial condition and record of treatment is another important ethical issue. Conservators produce a detailed treatment proposal prior to working on a piece and a treatment report after completion of the project listing the specific techniques and materials used. These written records are usually supplemented with a series of photographs taken both before and after treatment. The tools of X-radiography, infrared and ultraviolet photography, microscopic cross-sectioning, and various analytical
procedures are used as necessary to provide further documentary information. Documentation allows present and future owners to know exactly what has been done to an object and is especially helpful during future treatments or in the event of deterioration caused by previous treatments or improper care. It also prevents misrepresentation and confusion over what is original.

In a further attempt to clearly differentiate the work of the conservator from the historic components of the object, conservators will often choose to use materials and techniques that are easily detected as being modern. An extreme example of this would be the use of a plexiglass pedestal to support a coach wheel that is missing several spokes. In many instances, this treatment option would be considered too aesthetically and functionally severe. A more generally acceptable approach would be to make new spokes of the same or similar species of wood as the original, with coloration as necessary to produce a harmonious overall appearance of the wheel. Areas that are not normally visible would not be colored, allowing easy detection of the new wood.

Single Standard

In determining the proper treatment for a piece, the conservator must not consider the piece's value or aesthetic appeal. Each and every piece, regardless of age or rarity, deserves the same quality of treatment. In instances where time or funds are limited, the extent of the treatment can be adjusted, but never the quality. It therefore follows that a conservator can never answer the question of whether it is "worth" treating an object. Besides being unethical to consider the piece's value, it is obviously a conflict of interest for the conservator, since an affirmative answer will have a positive economic impact upon him/her. Only the owner or caretaker can consider value when determining whether or not to proceed with a treatment. If the owner is uncertain of the piece's value, he/she should consult with a competent appraiser and not with the conservator. Bear in mind that value is not only economic, but also includes historic value, cultural value, and emotional value as well.

Uniqueness

Each and every piece is unique. These differences may be subtle but they are extremely critical. Even if two identical horse-drawn vehicles were made at the same time by the same person, changes occurred that were dependent upon the total environment and history of each vehicle. Each one was probably made of slightly different materials which have somewhat different properties. If the vehicles had two different owners, the differing temperatures, relative humidities, light levels, and storage conditions will have caused differing degrees of deterioration. One owner may have used a cleaner, which affected the nature of the varnish, while the other did not. One carriage may have been subjected to daily abrasion, bangs, and water, while the other may have been used only for special occasions. Obviously, the vehicle receiving frequent use/abuse would have required more frequent repair and revarnishing, probably with materials that were completely different from the original, and possibly are not easily removable. Depending upon the abilities of the repairperson, it even could have suffered severe damage to its integrity and character.

For these reasons, the conservator must consider the specific needs and condition of each vehicle in order to determine an appropriate treatment procedure. Coupled with the fact that there are usually several equally acceptable treatment options, it becomes obvious that a conservator must personally examine an object before giving a suggested treatment. It is impossible to approach conservation from the perspective of a definite and consistent "cookbook" solution for each conservation problem. This is precisely why a conservator must have such a broad background of training and experience.

Educational Responsibility

It is the responsibility of the conservator to be aware of the latest information in their area of specialization in order to allow the best possible treatment of objects in their care. Additionally, conservators have an obligation to the profession to share their knowledge with other conservators, including the training of students in both formal academic settings and as apprentices and assistants. Education of the public and other non-conservators is accomplished through publications, lectures, workshops, and the answering of public inquiries.

These are several of the key elements of the AIC Code of Ethics. Numerous specific guidelines and concepts are generated from the use of these standards. The knowledge and application of these are the essence of the conservation profession.
 

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How can my museum/organization fund conservation costs?

Conservation projects are funded in many different ways.  Care and preservation of collections is a fundamental responsibility of any not-for-profit institution.  However, surprisingly few actually have a line item in the budget for this activity.  This is by far the preferred method of funding collections care.  Without a collection, the public will have no reason to visit, and the institution may cease to exist.  And, unfortunately, all collections deteriorate.  So, the first avenue of funding is to lobby appropriate staff and members of the Board to make a permanent and serious commitment to preservation of the collections.

Many institutions, even small, all volunteer ones, have been very successful in raising collections care funds through donations.  These can be based upon appeals for individual projects, or can be designed around forming an endowment for overall preservation and conservation.  The obvious advantage of an endowment is that funding is available in future years, so building one can be well worth the effort.

Grants are a common source of funding for collections care.  Very small institutions have as good a chance of receiving funding as larger ones.  The quality of the project design and the application narrative are the most important factors.  It is definitely worth while to seek professional assistance in preparing one of these grants.  The staff of American Conservation Consortium would be glad to assist you in this process.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services provides grants (federal) to museums and not-for-profits that allow preservation and conservation of collections.  Their Conservation Project Support Grant (CP Grant) may be the most important avenue for conservation funding available in the United States today.  They provide the funding for the Conservation Assessment Program (CAP - administered by Heritage Preservation) and the Museum Assessment Program (MAP - administered by the American Association of Museums).

The National Endowment for the Humanities provides extensive funding (federal) of cultural activities.  Of particular interest are the Preservation Assistance Grants (PAG), which are non-match grants of up to $5,000, Grants to Preserve and Create Access to Humanities Collections, a matching grant with awards up to $1,000,000, and Stabilization of Humanities Collections Grants, a matching grant with awards up to $700,000.

Another funding alternative is Save America’s Treasures. This program is designed for preservation of nationally significant collections and buildings.  However, it is not only relevant for blockbuster objects, but also for collections of less significant individual objects that in the composite represent a nationally significant resource.  If, for example, you have the most complete group of historic furniture made in your region, you can argue national significance for your collection.  You have the best research resource for these objects in the country.  These grants are up to $1,000,000, so the effort to apply can be richly rewarded.

Many states have programs that will provide collections care funding.  Occasionally, there will be local businesses or foundations that can assist with preservation.  Creativity is often rewarded in the fund-raising arena, so try all avenues available to you.

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American Conservation Consortium. Ltd.

4 Rockville Road, Broad Brook, CT 06016, 860-386-6058, acc@conservator.com

Copyright 2008, American Conservation Consortium, Ltd., all rights reserved