Identify Your Treasures
When conservators look at objects they
ask themselves a series of questions,
the answers to which provide the information needed to assess
condition and to recommend care and/or conservation.
The questions are:
- What is it?
- Why is it important to the owner and to
- What is it made of?
- How was it made?
- What is wrong with it?
- What caused the damage(s)?
- What could the owner do to preserve it?
- What could a conservator do to preserve
and conserve it?
In many ways, the owner needs to ask these
same questions. One of your most important first steps in caring
for any object you value is to know what it is, what it is made
of, and how it was made. Any decisions about care or preservation
must be based on the answers to these questions.
To determine what an object is, the first question should be
"What does it do?" The function of an object is usually
fairly apparent, although anyone who is a member of a tool collectors
group will know that they have "whatsit" sessions at
all of their meetings where they discuss tools whose functions
have gotten lost and forgotten through time.
Sometime you can tell by comparing the
object to something similar. You can look for wear patterns on
the item that might indicate how it was held or used and use
the web to search for information and to look for similar items.
The first thing to determine when trying to figure out what an
object is made from is whether the material is organic or inorganic.
In general, organic materials and inorganic materials respond
to their environments and to other stimuli in very different
ways. For example, organic materials warp, distort, mold, and
rot when exposed to high relive humidity. On the other hand,
inorganic metals will corrode and rust. Organic materials, such
as textiles and basketry, can be badly soiled by dust and dirt
accumulation, whereas glass, an inorganic material, is less affected
by dust and surface dirt.
- Organic materials are made from once living
things. They include wood, plant fibers, other plant materials,
paper, textiles, threads, yarns, basketry, leather, parchment,
hair, bone, horn, ivory, claws, gums, some resins, and plastics.
- Inorganic materials are derived from minerals.
Inorganic materials include ceramics, glass, metals, and stone.
Understanding the technology used to make objects can be fairly
difficult, especially if the technology is no longer used today.
However, this understanding will explain many of the characteristics
and qualities of your object.
if you have an old silk textile like a flag or a ribbon, it may
be extremely fragile with shattered fibers that crumble as you
touch them. Silk was made in the orient and was sold to shippers
for export beck to the west. It was sold by weight. In order
to get more for the same amount of silk, some manufacturers began
"weighting" it with metallic salts using metal ions
like arsenic and tin. Metals salts were also added to make the
fabric heavier to affect its drape and appearance. These metallic
salts have deteriorated over time and form chemicals that attack
the silk fibers, leaving them brittle and easily fractured.
So, understanding silk manufacturing technology
helps to understand fractured silk objects and tells us that
this deterioration is inherent in the materials and technology
of this silk. We cannot stop this deterioration, but we may be
able to slow it or to protect the object from future damages
resulting from this technological source of deterioration.
Once you understand what your object is made of and how it was
made you can begin to determine its condition. You may know from
the materials and technology if a condition feature is a result
of manufacture and use or a result of deterioration.
- Structural Issues
When thinking about the condition of an object, the conservator
will first consider structural issues. Is the item broken? Are
there missing parts? Is the structure loose? Structural problems
should be investigated and described first because they potentially
impact the survival of the entire piece.
- Cosmetic Issues
After the structural condition of a piece is determined, a conservator
will look to more surface, aesthetic, or cosmetic elements of
the object such as paint layers, finish, dirt, and other disfigurement.
The distinction between structural and cosmetic condition issues
is important and is one of the ways to distinguish the work of
conservators from that of restorers.