Artifact Lingo 101
You may have heard the terms preservation, conservation, and restoration used interchangeably in museums, antique shops, and even popular culture. These terms are often used to describe the acts of working with historic or artistic objects in order to keep them from deteriorating or make them look better (and sometimes both). Yet these three terms actually have distinct meanings.
Objects degrade over time. The act of preservation seeks to slow down or stop degradation in historic and artistic objects so the objects can be studied and appreciated for years to come. In the museum world, the activities of preservation tend to focus on creating safe storage and exhibit environments. This means we spend a lot of time monitoring the things that cause objects to degrade faster, such as relative humidity, temperature, light levels, pests, and pollutants.
Much of the work carried out by staff in the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center involves a great deal of preservation as we strive to prevent degradation and damage from occurring to the artifacts entrusted to our care. This is especially true in the Conservation department, where our main focus is the preservation of materials.
The term conservation is defined by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) as:
The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future. Conservation activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care, supported by research and education.
Conservators aim to alter objects as little as possible. When we do have to treat an object, it’s usually to clean or to repair a broken component. When treatment involves chemicals or adhesives, conservators make sure their work can be carried out (and reversed, if necessary) without affecting the original materials.
A good example of conservation is the work we did to curb the progress of glass degradation in the beads of an 1880s dress featured in the Little Black Dress exhibit. Due to a manufacturing flaw in the glass, the black glass beads were developing a thick white crust on their surface, something known as "bead disease." In the interest of slowing down the degradation and showing the dress as it once looked, our staff and volunteers spent nearly 300 hours cleaning the thousands of beads (individually!) with tiny cotton swabs and a chemical solvent. This treatment, along with careful monitoring of the exhibit and storage environment, will help to slow down the degradation of the beads.
At times, a conservation treatment may involve restoring some aspect of an artwork or artifact. One example of this is the conservation of the historic Chase Hotel sign featured in our Route 66 exhibit.
Restoration aims to return an object to its original appearance (or a known previous state). In museums, this is done through careful historical research and analysis of materials still present on the artifact. This often requires adding materials that weren’t part of the original object. When conducting conservation treatment on an object, we consider restoration only if we know the exact shape and look of the material we’re restoring. Take, for example, a broken ceramic vase. If pieces are missing from that vase, we’d fill them in only if there was enough original material present to figure out how the missing pieces would have been shaped. And if there are painted designs on the vase's surface with parts of the design missing, we’d recreate the missing parts only if we knew for certain what they would have looked like. So, when restorations occur in museums, they’re carried out with materials that are easily reversible and done in a way that preserves and maintains the original material as much as possible.
Outside of museums, restoration may involve much more aggressive methods, because the goal is often to make something look brand-new again. The overall look of an object may even change because color choices may be based on owners’ preferences, rather than the history of a piece. Surfaces are typically stripped and repainted, and some materials may be replaced. (If you want to see restoration in action outside of the museum world, try the History Channel’s American Restoration show.)
Of course, restoration to this degree isn’t always a bad thing, and restoration certainly has its place in the world of cultural heritage. But museum and conservation professionals mainly work within the realms of preservation and conservation and are guided by the AIC Code of Ethics. This ensures that all cultural property that has been entrusted to our care is preserved and protected for many generations to come.
—Crista Pack, Objects Conservator