12 October 2017




I love dust. I love rust. I love grime.

Before you question my sanity and scroll past this post, I let me explain – I love cleaning these things off an object. In this two part series, I’ll outline a practical beginner’s guide to conservation. By using stories from my time in the Markham Museum’s curatorial department, I’ll show you how to defeat dust, rust, and all the gross grime that attacks artifacts.

Part one will look at planning your war on dirt and part two will show you how to execute your plan and annihilate your foes.

Why conserve?
Removing layers of dirt and neglect from an object is insanely satisfying, and not just for the conservator. To the object, conservation is life or death (seriously): surface dirt and grime promotes deterioration, interferes with the aesthetics and the interpretation of an object, and attracts pests.

I think most people are more frightened of conservation than they should be. I’ll take this moment to clarify what I mean by “conservation” – it is by no means restoring an object to perfection. Cleaning an object doesn’t mean taking the object back to its original state: it means preventing further deterioration.

Definitely not the kind of cleaning I mean. Source.
Before cleaning, ask yourself...

Is it required? Does the object need to be cleaned?
Look at the object itself and how the museum (or entity that owns the object) wants to use it. If the object’s purpose depends on it being hygienic, then a deeper clean makes sense. Case in point: the curator of the Markham Museum, Janet Reid, restored a brass and chrome Babcock tester by removing layers of oxidation. Her goal was to clean it to a level appropriate for "Dairy Testing Clean", as it was a dairy testing tool. In consultation with Miriam Harris, Professor of Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management at Fleming College, it was determined that certain mechanical cleaners would be safe for both object and conservator.

Babcock tester from the Markham Museum after being restored. Layers of green corrosion were removed. Photo courtesy of Anna Kawecka.
The tester is now fully functioning as the corrosion was removed from all surfaces. Photo courtesy of Anna Kawecka.
What is a reasonable level of clean?
Determine how dirty the object is and what resources are available to you. Conservation is a lengthy and expensive process. So how do you balance the needs of the object with limited resources?
Triage the object: identify areas that need immediate attention (those that put the object in danger of irreversible damage) and areas that are not hazardous but not ideal. Figure out how much time and how many resources you can devote to the object. From there, it’s a matter of making a plan: the entire object needs to be brought to a uniform level of clean.

At the museum, Janet Reid wanted to add a cast iron horseshoe to an exhibition. Two hours were devoted during a busy exhibition installation to improve the appearance of this horseshoe (which was to be added to the upcoming exhibition) and stop the active corrosion. From a compromise between curatorial goals and conservation ideals, the horseshoe was taken from this:

Pretty gross, right? Photo courtesy of Julie Daechsel.

To this:

Two hours of conservation work. Photo courtesy of Julie Daechsel. 
Notice how it is uniformly clean? Equal amounts of time were spent cleaning every surface.

What is the dirt? How should it be removed?
Without intensive curatorial training, it’s next to impossible to look at an object and diagnose its dirt. Never blindly guess what dirt or corrosion is on your object: make an educated guess.

Look at where the object acquired its grime: was it outside, in a barn, in a basement? Could the grime be dirt, dust, or a combination? What is the object made of? When in doubt, ask other museum professionals: send a picture to the OMA listserv and wait for the responses to pour in. Museum professional love to share their wisdom and are only an email away. If you’ve identified the material, consult the CCI Notes before drafting your plan of attack.

But remember, never clean something without express permission from the object’s owner and never touch an object without complete confidence. Even the smallest inkling of uncertainty should give you pause.

Tune in to part two where I get down to the brass tacks (pun intended) of actually cleaning!

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