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What is worth conserving: Preventative conservation today or Conservation tomorrow

February 14th, 2013

What is worth conserving: Preventative conservation today or Conservation tomorrow

 Hannah Piner

There are two types of preservation methods that can be applied to objects: interventive, which interacts with and potentially changes the artifact in conserving it; or preventative, meaning conserving artifacts by doing everything but interacting with it, mostly by changing its environment. Both have their benefits and their failures, but, once the object becomes historically or archaeologically relative, which one is better suited for future analysis of the artifact using science and for future historical interpretation?

Cost becomes a problem no matter when the object is conserved; if it is conserved using preventative measures there are upkeep costs, if the treatment is interventive then there is the cost of time and treatment. Which of these is more cost efficient depends on the condition of the artifact and the financial state of the museum or patron. It is initially less expensive to use preventative conservation, because the artifact does not have to be handled, cleaned, or otherwise tampered with. If the artifact is in bad condition (i.e. is cracking, corroding, or flaking away), however, the cost of interventive conservation will only increase with the degradation of the objects condition.

Another part of preventative conservation is keeping objects from today, that are in good condition, so that they can be used as teaching tools and artifacts for future generations. This way a museum would have a concrete history of the object and could keep it in working order, however, we do not know significance of every object in use today and deciding what is significant enough to keep is subjective. There also needs to be a large storage area to house the objects that are in this limbo period of use and historical significance.

Preventative conservation is also popular because so many scientific methods are destructive to the artifact; with more advancements in the field come new and better ways to study artifacts that have not been tampered with.

This is contrasted with interventive conservation, where artifacts have survived and (in most cases) outlived their technological descendants. These artifacts are relevant upon discovery, and can be n a variety of conditions, from excellent to poor. These objects have had years to interact with their environmental surroundings uninhibited and unprotected. They are rotted, corroded, disintegrated, and in pieces. The conservator must spend time and money to restore this artifact to a stable condition. Unfortunately, stability and aesthetic authenticity are not always the same. Often times an artifact will look very different after burial or submersion. The object will, also, most likely never be able to be used for its original and intended purpose again.  This makes the artifact an excellent teaching tool, but takes away its functionality.

I would argue that interventive conservation is more logical overall. This allows the artifacts more immediate stability, which in turn provides the object  a longer life and provides researchers with easier access, because it is more accepted for people to access and touch stable artifacts. Preventative conservation, on the other hand, should be used on artifacts that are originally in excellent condition and are low risk for becoming unstable. This is also a decent option for organizations that do not have the money to interventively conserve an artifact right away.

The view on preventative conservation is changing. The more the field grows and the more advanced science becomes the more it is accepted to leave artifacts like they are, but interventive conservation is still the most accepted and practiced form of conservation.

 Caple, Chris. Conservation Skills: Judgment, Methods, and Decision Making. New York: Routlege; 2000.


Ethics and Theory, Museum Studies

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