Round One: Preventive Conservation

An example of Winterthur scenery

Just when I was beginning to think it’s always rainy in Wilmington, the clouds finally parted and allowed me a chance to roam the Winterthur grounds.  Now I have the digital imagery to prove to folks back home that I wasn’t inventing stories about my graduate program’s beautiful campus!  The real excitement of the last week took place in the research building, though, where the WUDPAC first-years concluded our first block of the semester: Preventive Conservation with the patient and fearless Joelle Wickens.

The goal of preventive conservation is to identify and reduce potential hazards to cultural artifacts with thoughtful control of their environment.  Temperature, relative humidity, visible and ultra-violet light, storage housing, packing and shipping, and exhibit preparation are a few of the many controllable aspects of an object’s surroundings that can influence its lifespan and appearance, and it was these that we focused on for the last few weeks.  As one might guess, preventive concerns apply to all disciplines within conservation, so it was only appropriate that we begin our education with this introduction.

Elizabeth Shaeffer and Jen Schnitker prepare copper coupons for two Oddy tests

The block was packed with varied learning experiences, all of which made it much easier to absorb the massive amounts of information we faced.  We learned the chemistry of degradation associated with atmospheric and lighting situations with the help of Richard Wolbers’ expert explanations, prepared a series of Oddy tests to study the corrosive effects of the experiment materials themselves, visited the Freer Gallery of Art and its labs to better understand loan and exhibition conservation, and listened to fascinating visiting lectures about safe shipping procedures and appropriate building design from some of the best in the biz – all culminating in some hands-on application of our new knowledge.

Each student was given a poorly-housed (and usually complex) object and an unmonitored museum storage space to deal with.  We then had to consider the vulnerabilities of our respective objects and construct safe housing with proper materials, and each storage space’s atmospheric and lighting conditions were assessed and compiled into a report with recommendations for a monitoring system relevant to the materials stored there.

The removable viewing tray of a damaged mirror's new storage housing (Left: top, Right: bottom)

Not only did these projects help me internalize many preventive ideas, but they also got me thinking: preventive conservation is possibly the most ubiquitous aspect of the profession, yet it is also the least visible.  Basically, when it’s perfectly executed, nothing happens.  This is great for the objects, and it is work that deserves more recognition.  With more rain on the way tomorrow, I just may spend a little time indoors sharing what I’ve learned in the best way I know how: expanding the Preventive Conservation section of Wikipedia!

Interesting fact: as of 9/14/11, the classic sci-fi movie Blade Runner‘s Wikipedia article was close to 7500 words long with 162 referenced sources.  Preventive Conservation had a total of 125 dedicated words on the Conservation-restoration page.

~ Jessica


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