What is Conservation?
Many people have objects of historical, artistic or
sentimental value. Over time, these may deteriorate, or accidents
may happen, causing damage. Tarnished silverware, moth-eaten army
uniforms, broken furniture and paintings covered with a network of
cracks and yellowed varnish are examples. The conservator is a specialist
who can treat damaged objects, and who can help collectors and custodians
care for them in the future. This page gives an overview of the type
of work done by a conservator.
A conservator has the training, knowledge and expertise
to perform a variety of conservation activities within a specialty,
for example, in paintings, textiles, or furniture. These include
examinations and condition assessments of objects, treatments, documentation
and preventive conservation.
What is it made from? How was it put together?
Examining an object is the first step to determine
its composition, structure, and how it was put together. A conservator's
trained eye and experience with similar objects are the most important
tools at this stage. The conservator may also need to study relevant
historical and present-day information. A thorough examination of
the object ensures that sound conservation decisions are made during
the condition assessment and treatment.
|Textile conservator aligning damaged brocade
prior to repair of 18th century silk dress
How much damage has occurred? Why?
A condition assessment involves determining and recording
the extent and location of damage on an object and, if possible,
what caused the damage. The conservator also estimates whether the
damage is ongoing or not. From this information, treatment options
and preventive measures for the future care of the object can be
What to do? How to do it?
Conservation treatments are intended to stop ongoing
damage, and often to repair damages or reveal aesthetic, historical
and other important qualities of the object. A single treatment may
have all of these purposes. For example, a torn silk dress may require
fine hand stitching to attach it to a new backing fabric in order
to stabilize it and to enhance its meaning and appreciation.
There can be a range of treatment options for a given object and
Based on their training and experience, and guided
by a Code of Ethics, conservators are able to propose how best to
treat the object in a given situation, and how far a treatment should
go. Amateur restorations, on the other hand, may not follow ethical
principles. They can destroy valuable information and obscure the
object's authenticity. They may also cause further damage. The following
are a few examples of ethical principles in conservation:
||Furniture conservator filling losses on gilded
* Less is more:
Too much restoration work may lead
to a loss of information about how an object was made and what has
happened to it. Conservation does not imply putting the object back
into pristine condition. The degree of intervention is decided in
consultation with the owner or custodian.
* Respecting the object's history:
the object is not necessarily limited to the original materials.
Early repairs and modifications, or traces of use such as wear marks
on tools, may have historical significance.
* Stability of conservation materials:
by a conservator must, as much as possible, be removable in the future
and must not contribute to future damage. Most materials on the market,
including many plastics, papers, glues, fillers, coatings, and detergents,
do not meet these criteria.
* Distinguishing conservation repairs from the original:
Although treatments are often inconspicuous, it should always be
possible to recognize, upon close examination or by other means,
the difference between the original material and a repair. Treatment
documentation also plays an important role in this respect.
Conservators produce written and photographic records
of their work to document the condition of the object before and
after a treatment, as well as the treatment itself. This information
serves as a reference for the owner, custodian, researchers or future
An ounce of prevention
Preventive conservation includes actions taken on the
object's surroundings to prevent damage from fire, theft, vandalism,
shocks and vibrations, water, dust, pollutants, pests, light, ultraviolet
radiation, temperature or humidity. Conservators can choose from
a variety of preventive storage, transit or display measures. Designing
and building a shipping crate tailored to an object's needs, or a
climate-controlled, dust-free display case, are examples of preventive
Who is responsible for conservation?
Conservation decisions are the shared responsibility
of conservators and owners or custodians. Preventive conservation
activities, such as matting and framing, can be performed by the
non-specialist. Only conservators, however, have the training and
expertise to perform treatment conservation.
Conservation organizations in Canada
The Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural
Property (CAC) is a non-profit organization with the main purpose
of disseminating knowledge about the conservation of cultural property.
Its membership is open to anyone interested in heritage and conservation.
For more information on CAC publications, membership or activities,
Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property
332 Bank Street, P.O. Box 87028
Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1X0
tel.: (613) 231-3977
fax: (613) 231-4406
The Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAPC) is a non-profit association dedicated to the accreditation
of professional conservators and the maintenance of high standards
in conservation in Canada. Membership is open to conservators and
conservation scientists through defined professional membership requirements.
Canadian Association of Professional Conservators
c/o Canadian Museums Association
280 Metcalfe Street, Suite 400
Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1R7
tel.: (613) 998-3721
fax: (613) 998-4721
The following documents are published jointly by the
- Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice of the Canadian Association
for Conservation of Cultural Property and of the Canadian Association
- Selecting and Employing a Conservator in Canada ©1997-2008
CAC and CAPC