Art conservation is the preservation and maintenance of culturally significant objects. These include:
- fine arts, such as paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, and photographs
- decorative arts, such as furniture, textiles, ceramics, and glass
- paper documents and books
- archaeological materials
- anthropological artifacts
- monuments and historic buildings.
Because there are so many different types of cultural objects, conservators must specialize. For example, one conservator may choose to deal exclusively with oil paintings, another with wooden artifacts, another with illuminated manuscripts, and so on.
Conservators are professionals, educated specifically to deal with the type(s) of cultural objects in which they specialize. Many have earned advanced degrees. Their educational backgrounds commonly include coursework in the visual arts, including art history and studio art, as well as the sciences, especially chemistry. Training in preservation methodology is gained through some combination of graduate courses, internships, and apprenticeships.
There is never any lack of cultural materials needing a conservator’s attention. Many conditions, natural and man-made, cause things to age and deteriorate. Light, extremes of humidity and temperature, insects, pollutants, accidental damage, and neglect hasten the breakdown of wood, stone, metal, paper, adhesive, leather, fiber, glass, and other materials which make up historic and artistic objects.
The conservator’s job is to combat these destructive forces and to stabilize deteriorating materials, so that culturally significant objects will be available for future generations.
Since every cultural object is in some way unique, the conservator’s first responsibility is usually to examine and evaluate it thoroughly. Often this process involves not only scientific and technical analysis, but also historical and aesthetic judgements. Sometimes curators or other specialists are consulted. Old records and photographs, if available, are studied. Once the evaluation has been done, the conservator will normally prepare a condition report and a set of recommendations. Recommendations may include:
- cleaning to remove grime and aged surface coatings (e.g., yellowed varnish)
- stabilizing deteriorating materials
- adding new materials to help support weakened original ones
- restoring the appearance to some degree
- displaying or storing the object in a particular way, in order to optimize its physical environment.
The conservator who prepares a set of recommendations is often available to actually treat the object, should the owner so desire. Any work external to the object itself—such as display, storage, and environmental systems—may require other specialists.
At the conclusion of a conservation treatment, the conservator provides the owner with detailed written and photographic documentation. This documentation is an important part of the cultural object’s history and should be retained for future reference.