Go back to article: Challenges of conservation: working objects

Conserving the material of objects

That objects are given conservation attention depends very frequently on the way they are to be used in the museum, for example in a special exhibition. How they are conserved then depends on their materials and condition, and available resources such as time, and expertise.

The assessment of condition requires an understanding of materials and the causes and effect of deterioration. Some materials are durable and others much less so. Conservators often talk in terms of ‘inherent vice’ (perhaps more clearly expressed as inherent fault) when considering materials which deteriorate very readily, such as paper. A good example of material suffering from inherent fault is doped fabric used on early airplanes, of which there are several examples in the Science Museum collections (Regel et al, 2016).

Inherent fault is also an issue with many plastics – which are now entering museum collections either as complete objects, or as components in composite objects (e.g. Sale, 1995). It also applies to the modern synthetic polymers (plastics) used as conservation adhesives or consolidants. Conservators aim to use only those with known, reliable and predictably stable properties, while understanding that even these will slowly change (Horie, 1987; Shashoua, 2008). For this reason, conservation scientists have an important role in testing modern synthetic polymers for potential conservation use.

It used to be held that all treatments should be reversible (that it should be possible to undo a treatment and return to the state of the object before treatment), but this concept has been largely discarded as true reversibility is seldom, if ever, possible (Oddy and Carroll, 2000; Muñoz Viñas, 2005). The fact that change will inevitably continue, both in object and in added conservation materials, brings the need to anticipate further conservation in the future (and, we hope, innovations in conservation methods and materials). So the aim is to design treatments now to allow for retreatment in the future, or at least not to hinder it (Appelbaum, 1987). This need to encompass future treatment also means that the materials and processes used must be fully documented so that future conservators can make informed decisions.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160608/005