Conservation: Using Others Mistakes to Avoid Our Own
Conservation involves multiple fields coming together in order to better protect and understand artifacts. A combination of archaeology, chemistry, even biology can all be called upon at the same time by the conservator whilst they are working on the said object. Since conservation efforts require so many different fields of knowledge, the conservator must be aware of what is going on in other fields. By expanding their gaze, information can flow easier and benefit their effort. The information that can be gained from other fields is not limited strictly to data concerning decay or material makeup, but it can also involve ethical questions.
One such question is where to draw the line at examining artifacts. What is meant by this is how much of an object are we willing to remove and potentially destroy in order to gain information. Conservators must walk a fine line in determining what is acceptable to “sacrifice” for the good of the entire collection. For example, taking a few coins from a collection of over a thousand and then breaking them down (as in removing a section of it or cutting into the coin) to better understand their process of decay. However, once those coins are broken down, they can no longer be part of the collection. How is it decided what is ok to take away from the collection since it will no longer be available for future use? In conservation the size of the collection and the potential benefits of ‘sacrificing’ the object are weighed out before anything irreversible is done. This helps to ensure that what is lost is not more than what will be gained.
A prime example of the damage that can be done if the cost vs benefit ratio is not properly followed is highlighted in a University of Arizona Environmental department article concerning the Prometheus Bristlecone pine. A geology researcher eager to get results concerning glacial features decided rather than taking a small sample from the Bristlecone pines to gather his information he would cut an entire plant down for more immediate results. Soon after he cut down one of the Bristle cone pines, it was learned that the plant selected was the oldest tree alive, dating nearly 5000 years old (UA Communications, 2013. “Keepers of Prometheus: The World’s Oldest Tree.” University of Arizona Research & Discovery in Environment & Sustainability, Accessed: Web. 5 Feb. 2013). The article explains that the same results could have been gathered from the plant, dubbed Prometheus, if the researcher had followed the approved methods of dendrochronology by taking small samples of the core, which would not have hurt the plant. This would have allowed future researches the chance to monitor and learn more about the plant survival strategy in addition to the plant yielding the needed information for the geologist in his glacial research, but there was no way to undo what had been done.
This same concept can be applied to the conservation world. The conservator must be careful in what they select to break down and examine in an irreversible way. If the object is one of a kind then it cannot be treated in the same manner that something like a large collection of coins would be treated, or else future information can be lost, similar to what happened with the Prometheus Bristlecone pine. Taking small core samples can yield useful information without damaging the entire collection. It can explain the material makeup of the object, why or why not it is decaying, what type of decay is happening, and what the best method to protect the object would be. Looking into other fields and the mistakes they have made can help emphasize why conservators need to be so diligent and practical in their art. The information and materials they work with is one of a kind.