What is Conservation

Why do I need a Conservator?

Conservators are professionals who work to physically save our cultural property from the ravages of time, the threats of pollution, and the devastation brought by natural disasters.  A conservator may be trained at a conservation graduate training program or by a lengthy apprenticeship with experienced senior colleagues working in museums, cultural institutions, research labs, and in private practice.   Conservators combine unique skills gained through ongoing study and advanced training in art history, science, studio art, and related disciplines to care for and preserve our tangible history.

Because of the increasingly technical nature of modern conservation, conservators usually specialize in a particular type of object, such as: paintings, works of art on paper, rare books, photographs, electronic media, textiles, furniture, archaeological and ethnographic materials, sculpture, architectural elements, or decorative arts.  Some larger conservation companies, like Hartmann Conservation, provides treatment in a number of these disciplines.

Conservation vs. Restoration?

The reason that our field is known as Conservation is that, as professionals, we foremost strive to stabilize and preserve the artwork or cultural property entrusted to our care.   We approach conservation using scientific analysis, historical research, and visual examination to craft an object-specific treatment plan that helps to retain and protect as much of the original integrity and fabric of an artifact as possible.  This takes into account the age, the use-history, and the stability and reversibility of materials we use to carry out our proposed work.

Restoration historically refers to an attempt to bring cultural artifacts back to their original appearance by reworking, repainting, repairing or replacing elements.  Although most people think of what we do as restoration, it really is not the main focus of our work.   It is not to say that some restoration of missing or damaged pieces will not be required.   It is our goal however, to try to save as much of the original materials, finishes and coatings as possible.

If you want a shorter more precise definition of the two approaches, we would say that Conservation strives to have the artifact show its’ age, but give the impression that it was lovingly cared for since its’ creation, versus Restoration, which strives to make an artifact look like it was newly created.

Steps in the Conservation Process

  • Scientific Analysis – To conduct analytical testing of an artifact to determine its’ age, historic nature, makeup, authenticity or to identify previous conservation work.  Specific testing is only done when required or necessary to aid in the conservation of an artifact.
  • Examination – To conduct an in-depth study of the materials making up an artifact to assess its’ current condition, and to determine the steps needed for its’ conservation.
  • Documentation – To record the condition, proposed treatment and treatment of an artifact in writing and to photographically document the treatment process.
  • Treatment – To directly undertake the process of stabilizing, cleaning and preserving an artifact’s condition so as to prolong its’ existence.

Careers in Conservation

Also see Hartmann Conservation – Employment Opportunities

  • Conservation Administrator – A professional with substantial knowledge of conservation who is responsible for the administrative aspects and implementation of conservation activities in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
  • Conservator – A professional, whose primary occupation is the practice of conservation and who, through specialized education, knowledge, training, and experience, formulates and implements all the activities of conservation in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
  • Conservation Technician – An individual who is trained and experienced in specific conservation treatment activities and who works in conjunction with or under the supervision of a conservator. A conservation technician may also be trained and experienced in specific preventive care activities.
  • Conservation Intern – An individual who works under the direct supervision of a conservator.   This person is interested in entering into a career as a conservator and is frequently in college majoring in art history, studio art &/or chemistry.   This person could also be trying to gain experience to enter a conservation graduate school, or is a student currently enrolled in a conservation graduate school interning as part of their degree requirements.
  • Collections Care Specialist – An individual who is trained and experienced in specific preventive care activities who works in conjunction with or under the supervision of a conservator.
  • Conservation Educator – A professional with substantial knowledge and experience in the theory and techniques of conservation whose primary occupation is to teach the principles, methodology, and/or technical aspects of the profession in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.
  • Conservation Scientist – A professional scientist whose primary focus is the application of specialized knowledge and skills to support the activities of conservation in accordance with an ethical code such as the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.

How to become a Conservator

In order to become a conservator a student must major in one of the following areas and minor in the others: Art History, Studio Art and Science (particularly Chemistry).   There are three graduate programs in the United States and one in Canada that offer a Master’s Degree in conservation.   These schools typically accept 10 new students each year and therefore it is extremely competitive to get into the schools.   Not only do the schools require specific pre-requisite courses to be taken in college, but also require experience working in the conservation field prior to acceptance as well.   If conservation is what you want to do as a career, do not give up if you are not accepted into one of these schools.   It is not uncommon to apply over multiple years until you get in.   Each of the four schools are somewhat different in their approach to teaching conservation emphasizing  book learning, hands-on work, science or art history.   You may decide to only apply to one or two schools because you like what they do better, but this is not necessarily wise because they are frankly hard to get into.   All of the schools are thought highly of and you would be well-served in the end by getting into any of them.

People can still enter this field through apprentice training having worked with an experienced conservator, but need to realize that their job prospects will probably be diminished.   Those individuals who have earned a Master’s Degree in conservation will likely have a better chance of getting a job with a museum or large regional conservation facility.

The following four North American schools offer degrees in conservation:

Glossary of Specialized Conservation Terms

  • Bole – A clay layer applied directly beneath a layer of water gilding that allows gold leaf to be burnished to a high polish.  Frequently burnished area can be seen as shiny highlights on a gilded frame or mirror.
  • Consolidation – To add an adhesive or incorporate a material that solidifies or stabilizes a structure or material.
  • Cultural Property – Objects, collections, specimens, structures, or sites identified as having artistic, historic, scientific, religious, or social significance.
  • Frame Fillet or Liner – A fillet is a thin gilded, stained or painted wooden strip that is added to the inner edge of a frame that allows you to expand the dimensions of a frame so that the painting or print does not fall through the opening.   A frame liner is about the same thing, but is larger.   Frames frequently are made to be wider or grander by adding additional frame molding pieces on the inside of a frame.   A liner basically acts as a wooden window mat for a painting or work-of-art on paper.
  • Gilding – Application of an extremely thin sheet of aluminum, gold, silver or metallic leaf to an artifact or frame.
  • Inpainting – When a conservator uses paint to replace missing paint on an artifact, re-paints filled areas or thinly applies paint to abraded sections of a painting or painted surface.   The reason that it is called “inpainting” is because the conservator is only repainting or painting-in the areas or brush strokes that are missing and not repainting or retouching (as it used to be called) an entire section, color panel or background to cover up the damage.   Repainting sections of paintings was more common 50 to 100 years ago because standards for conservation had not been established.   This still happens today when untrained people attempt to do conservation and either can’t match the colors or think that its’ acceptable to do this.   A lot of our work comes from undoing poorly attempted restoration.
  • Impasto–A thick heavy 3-dimensional paint layer.
  • Interstices – A small space or crack between two things.   Generally this is a word used in conservation to describe lower/deeper sections of a paint layer, particularly if the paint layer was applied very thickly.
  • Lining – The addition of a secondary support canvas, panel or backing to a painting to help support an original canvas that is very fragile, has large mended tears or can’t support its’ own weight.
  • Medium – The binder or adhesive used to hold paint together (ex. oil paint, water color, egg-tempera, gouache, acrylic).
  • Preventive Care (also referred to as preventive conservation): The slowing down or stopping of deterioration and damage to cultural property through the establishment and implementation of policies and procedures for the following: appropriate environmental conditions; handling and maintenance procedures for storage, exhibition, packing, transport, and use; integrated pest management; emergency preparedness and response; and reformatting/duplication.
  • Rabbet – This is a French word, which refers to the inner lip of a frame that covers the outer edges of a painting.
  • Strainer/Stretcher – A strainer is a fixed corner wooden framework that a painting is mounted to or stretched over.   A Stretcher is not joined in the corners, but has wooden triangular flat wedges called stretcher keys.
  • Stretcher Key – Wooden triangular flat wedges (1 or 2) in each inner corner of a wooden stretcher that when tapped lightly with a hammer allows you to expand the stretcher slowly and therefore the painting, which becomes more taught or in-plain.  To key-out a painting means to make it more taught on its stretcher.
  • Vacuum Hot Table – A large table that a conservator uses to line a painting (see lining), consolidate flaking paint on a painting using an adhesive, or to humidify and relax flaking paint or a distorted canvas.   This table generally has a continuous sheet of aluminum on top with heat coils or sheets below.  The table is heated to melt adhesives or waxes into the structure of a painting to consolidate flaking paint layers.   The table also has a vacuum pump or system that allows the conservator to pump out air between a clear covering sheet and the painting.   When the table is heated and the vacuum is turned on, the paint layers will relax and flatten.   When the heat is finally turned off the artwork will cool under vacuum allowing it to remain flat or back into its original configuration when it is safe to remove it from the table.

Conservation Damage Terms

  • Inherent Vice – Built-in internal stress or incompatibility of materials within an object.
  • Paint Cracks  or Craquelure (French for crackle)
    • Age Crackle – Fine to very heavy and noticeable crack pattern throughout a painting’s surface caused by shrinkage of paint or drying of oil in the paint medium.
    • Draw Crackle – Generally a series of straight cracks emanating from the corners of a painting.   These are caused by either keying out the painting so far that the paint cracks or from the painting being very slack on its strainer or stretcher.
    • Pinwheel or Sigmoid Crackle – These circular cracks are from something hitting or being leaned against the canvas of a painting from either the front or back sides.   These cracks frequently don’t show up for a long period of time after the incident occurs.
    • Stretcher Bar Crease – These are cracks that are parallel to the outside edges of the painting or along the length of a vertical or horizontal interior stretcher bar.   They are formed when the canvas is slack on its’ stretcher or strainer and the paint cracks along the inner edges of the four outside stretcher bars or along the interior bars.
    • Traction Crackle – This term is used when an upper layer of paint or varnish dries to the point that it cracks and shrinks into noticeable paint or varnish islands, but the layer below doesn’t, so that the lower layer is now revealed.   This is usually very visually disturbing.
  • Paint Problems – (In increasing order of severity.)
    • Blanching – When a layer of varnish or paint turns white and semi-opaque.   This is generally caused by this layer developing very minute cracking.    Light no longer easily penetrates through this layer and bounces in all directions.   This makes the layer look white.   Just like a frosted piece of glass, if you put water on the frosted side you can see through it again as if it were a clear piece of glass.
    • Cracking Paint – This term is fairly obvious, but is included to show the progression of problems with paint.  It refers to the initial problem with a paint layer where with age the binding material holding the paint shrinks and cracks.
    • Cleaving Paint or Cleavage – This is when paint is separating from its attachment to its support (i.e. – wall, panel or ground layer).
    • Interlaminate Cleavage – Separating paint between layers (support to ground, ground to paint or wall to paint).
    • Quilting Paint – After the paint has cracked, but before the edges start to curl up and away from the painting or painted surface.
    • Tented Paint – After the paint initially cracks and starts to detach by lifting a little around the edges.   Two of these paint areas lifting adjacent to one another form what looks like a tent.   This stage of paint damage is just before Cupping Paint and then Flaking or loss of paint.
    • Cupping Paint – After paint cracks and is actively detaching itself from its substrate, it then begins to curl like a potato chip.   At this point the paint’s edges are exposed, which are sharp to the touch.
    • Flaking Paint–Following the cupping stage the paint chip completely lets go from its substrate and falls off, creating a loss of paint.
  • Paper Conservation Damage
    • Cockling– Undulations in the paper artifact’s normally flat surface.   This is not wrinkling, but gentle waves in the paper where it is not lying flat.
    • Foxing – Small red/brown blotchy looking spots on a paper-based artifact or document.   These look like rust spots, but are actually particles in the paper that are acidic and have discolored because of exposure to high humidity levels or contact with other acidic materials
    • Acid-Burn or Acid-Matt Burn–A dark red brown staining just inside the edge of a window mat on your artifact.   This is caused by moisture activating acidic particles in the adjacent acidic mat board.   It is surprisingly not on the artifact below the mat because this portion of the artifact and matt were not directly exposed to higher humidity levels.    Acid-burn on a paper artifact can also be created by the flow of air through the crack of two wooden backing boards.

Contact Us

Hartmann Conservation
321 West Old York Road
Carlisle, PA 17015

P: 717-574-3579
E: info@hartmannconservation.com