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The Conservation Laboratory actively supports and promotes the Peabody Museum’s mission to preserve and protect the collections entrusted to its care. The care and treatment of specimens in the Museum is guided by the principle that the integrity of an object should be preserved in every possible way. Because the Peabody collections are used primarily for research, our approach to the treatment of the collections is conservative. We are always aware of the specimen’s research potential and whenever possible nothing is done to impair or compromise it.
In the course of treating artifacts, conservators frequently reveal information about them. Knowledgeable about early technology and manufacturing techniques, object conservators often uncover details of how an artifact was made or used. Years of experience looking at and working with a variety of materials and artifacts from different time periods and locations help conservators to recognize and identify materials. Conservators are also trained to recognize seeds, grain, textiles and other organic materials that may be preserved in the corrosion surrounding a metal artifact. Not generally found on excavations, these materials can provide valuable information about the climate when the site was inhabited, what its inhabitants were growing or eating, or the types of technology they used. By revealing this kind of information, conservators can make important contributions to archaeological research.
Conservators also uncover information that helps us to understand how materials deteriorate over time and under different conditions, information that can be used to develop better ways to treat and preserve specimens.
On an excavation, the conservator is responsible for cleaning and repairing artifacts as they come out of the ground so that they can be recorded, photographed and interpreted by archaeologists. Any information revealed by the conservator can be helpful in the interpretation process. The conservator is often called on to remove or lift artifacts out of the ground to ensure their safe handling. Preventive conservation is also practiced on site in the proper packing of artifacts for transport to local or regional museums and long-term storage.
The Peabody Museum has a strong history of conservation activities. The Museum’s first conservator, Barbara P. Moore, was appointed in 1988. One of the new Conservation Laboratory’s first activities was to conduct a general condition assessment of the Peabody’s collections. This led to the development and implementation of a long-range conservation plan. This plan established a two-pronged approach to address conservation needs:
- Implement environmental improvements wherever collections are housed or exhibited to arrest ongoing deterioration; and
- Undertake selected collections-based projects where specific collections were in urgent need of conservation treatment or rehousing.
Over the next decade many improvements were made, including establishing microenvironments in storage for humidity-sensitive specimens; installing ultraviolet-absorbing filters on fluorescent lights in exhibits and storerooms; lowering light levels in exhibits; and systematically replacing harmful storage materials with inert materials. A survey of the Museum’s environmental systems was undertaken, leading to the upgrading of the air handling equipment serving collection areas, and ultimately to the construction of the climate-controlled Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center to house collections.
Four projects focused on the historical scientific instruments, mammals and invertebrate dry type specimens, rescuing them from crisis conditions and enabling them to be rehoused with inert materials in museum-quality cabinets.
The Conservation Laboratory recommends the following to those interested in museum conservation.
The Art of the Conservator
Andrew Oddy, editor
Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992
Series of leaflets constantly being updated.
Ottawa: Canadian Conservation Institute
Available from email@example.com
Caring for Collections
Harriet Whelchel, editor
Washington, DC: National Committee to Save
America’s Cultural Collections, 1992
Conservation Concerns: A Guide for Collectors and Curators
Konstanze Bachmann, editor
Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992
Sotheby’s Caring for Antiques:
The Complete Guide to Handling, Cleaning, Display, and Restoration
Mette Tang Simpson and Michael Huntley, editors
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992
The Winterthur Guide to Caring for Your Collection
Gregory J. Landrey and others
Winterthur, DE: Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum,
Winterthur Decorative Arts Series, 2000
International Institute for Conservation
of Historic & Artistic Works
6 Buckingham St
London WC2N 6BA
American Institute for Conservation
of Historic & Artistic Works
1717 K. Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20006
Western Association for Art Conservation
Conservation is concerned with the overall preservation of all the Museum’s collections. This means that the conservator is involved in all aspects of collections care and handling. How specimens are stored is of as much interest to the conservator as what materials will be in the same exhibit case with them or whether they will travel by truck or airplane to an institution borrowing them for study or exhibition. Conservation work therefore is varied and multi-faceted, involving both active treatment and passive treatment, analysis of materials and the development of new treatment techniques.
See below for more information on treatments:
Museum conservation has moved away from the active treatment of specimens and objects to the practice of what we call preventive conservation. This is an approach used by the Peabody’s Conservation Laboratory, since active treatment generally involves invasive techniques that can alter specimens. There are times, however, when active treatment is necessary.
Treatment is undertaken when the life of a specimen is in danger, for example, when water-soluble salts in an artifact or specimen are causing it to crumble to dust. Infestation by webbing cloths moths or dermestid beetles also requires prompt treatment.
When artifacts and specimens are broken, they are usually repaired, especially if they are required for exhibition or education programs. Repairs are made to ensure the stability of a specimen and sometimes to keep detached elements from getting lost or broken. Repairs can also help researchers, for example, by enabling them to measure more accurately eggs in the collections.
Museum conservation has changed profoundly in recent years, moving away from the active treatment of specimens and objects to practice what we call preventive conservation. This approach, used by the Peabody Conservation Laboratory, is based on the premise that damage to and deterioration of collections can be reduced significantly by controlling their causes.
The main advantage of this approach is obvious: if specimens are not damaged, they do not need to be treated. Treatment generally involves invasive techniques that can alter specimens and is best avoided whenever possible to prevent tampering with the integrity of the specimen or artifact. The preventive approach is particularly appropriate for research collections such as those at the Peabody, because the introduction of treatment materials such a adhesives, consolidants — or even water — could possibly compromise a specimen’s research potential.
Preventive conservation should be applied throughout a museum. While the main concern is with environmental conditions in storage, exhibition and study areas, conservators are also involved with how specimens and artifacts are handled, packed and transported.
Among the routine preventive tasks of the conservator are ensuring that:
- Relative humidity and temperature levels are appropriate for collections
- Insects and other pests do not damage specimens and artifacts
- Sensitive specimens and artifacts on display are not exposed to harmful levels of light
- Exhibit and storage case materials, furniture and mounts do not emit substances that can cause specimens or artifacts to deteriorate
The well-being of the collections is our highest priority, as is doing everything possible to ensure they will be available for research, study and education for generations to come.
Conservators measure relative humidity (RH) to determine whether environmental conditions are appropriate for specimens. RH is the amount of water in a given volume of air relative to the maximum amount of water that air can hold at a given temperature, expressed as a percentage. For example, when the RH is 100% the air is saturated, holding all the water it can; at 50% RH, air holds half the water it can.
Controlling RH levels is crucial to the long-term preservation of specimens. Organic materials such as wood, leather, skin, hair, feathers, ivory, fibers and paper are most susceptible to RH changes. Because these materials give off moisture when the RH is low and absorb moisture when the RH is high, they expand and contract when RH fluctuates. Repeated cycles of these changes eventually lead to warping, cracking and possible disintegration. Consistently low RH over a long time also causes damage because organic materials give off moisture, including water that is part of their chemical make-up, and can become dry, brittle, shrunken and warped. A combination of fluctuating and low RH levels over time have caused the skin on the neck of the antelope above to shrink and crack.
Light is a form of energy that can cause severe damage to specimens and objects. Exposure to both the visible and the invisible, or ultraviolet, portions of light will cause damage. Organic materials are most susceptible to light, but dyes, paints and other inorganic materials can also be affected. Damage from light is cumulative and irreversible.
Storage and Exhibit Materials
Although it may sound strange, pollution can be a major cause of damage to museum collections. The most common form occurs when specimens and objects are housed in containers, including exhibit cases, made of unstable materials. For example, wooden cabinets or exhibit cases give off acids that will cause specimens to deteriorate. Similarly boxes, trays, envelopes and paper used to hold and package specimens can be responsible for damage if they are made of unstable, acidic materials, as seen here. Therefore, we are systematically replacing all inappropriate cabinets, drawers, trays, boxes and packaging materials with ones known to be made of inert, stable materials.