What is conservation and restoration?

This page presents a general interpretation of the technical work developed by art conservators and what conservation and restoration is.

All matter undergoes natural changes over time and interaction with the elements. Such changes may have chemical, biological and physical origin and different agents, internal and external.

“The most revealing form of examination of artworks, is looking.”

Ashok Roy 1998

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The conservator emerges as the expert who can treat damaged objects. Is he who can assist and advise owners and custodians in the handling and treatment of cultural property.

What does a conservator restorator do? Are they detectives? Scientists? Artists? Doctors?

The conservative has the general and specific knowledge and experience of each material and constructive or artistic technique to know what to do and also what not to do to prolong the materiality of a cultural good.

Using his observation and, when justified examinations and analyzes he will know how to formal and materialy characterize an object, diagnose its state of conservation and meet its needs, through direct actions such as conservation and restoration or indirect actions – preventive conservation.

The conservator restorer combines his knowledge and experience to meet customer expectations for the material preservation of a good, always guided by the profession’s code of conduct that defines the limits of intervention so that they do not compromise their historical and artistic authenticity. Amateur restoration is usually not governed by ethical principles, increasing the risk of further damage, the risk of destroying important information and of minimizing the historical authenticity of the object – what we conservators call potential unity.

Conservation and restoration is based on several ethical criteria, described in documents such as the Krakow Charter. Here are some examples of broad but fundamental decision-making principles:

“Less is More” – Principle of minimal intervention. Too much intervention may lead to loss of information about how the object was made and what happened in its path. The conservation and restoration intervention does not imply that the object is returned to its original aspect when it was produced.

 “Respect for the history of the object” – The preservation of the object does not deal exclusively with the original material. Some historical reparations and modifications, signs of use and age, play a key role in validating the authenticity of the object and its historical significance.

“Restoration differentiation” – While many treatments are perfectly invisible to the eyes of a layman, they should always be recognizable or visible after detailed analysis. The difference between the original material and the conservation intervention materials must be visible or destructible.

“Documentation” – Continuing with the previous point, conservators carry out a written, photographic and graphic register of all their work, documenting the condition of the object before, during and after treatment, as well as the treatment itself. This information should be made available and will serve as a reference for what has been done to the owner, researchers, historians, other conservatives and in future interventions.

“Prevention” – Preventive conservation includes actions performed primarily in the environment or space where the object is located to minimize damage from shock, vibration, vandalism, theft, fire, water, dust, pollution, pests, ultraviolet radiation, temperature and humidity. Conservatives have a wide range of preventive measures at their disposal. This facet lies at the base of the preservation of any cultural good. Ideally, it is the “treatment” with the best long term results in terms of safeguarding and preserving the physical object.

See the conservative’s responsibilities in more detail on the Ethics page.