11 July 2018




Welcome to my final article for the summer! I'd like to indulge in a little ancient Greek symposium, and explore a hotly debated topic in conservation practices: How do you decide which artifacts deserve saving? *sips wine* Let’s discuss.

The reason why this question raises some eyebrows is because everyone’s has an opinion. Even professionals disagree on the circumstances surrounding object conservation. Unfortunately, the alternative is quite drastic: Without conscious care, objects will naturally disintegrate, and in most cases there’s no possible recovery. As a conservator, quite literally, the object’s life is in your hands. Will you save it, or let it go?

Let’s look at three common criteria that help conservators make this decision easier:

1) Quality of Condition 

Friend, if your artifact looks like it's beyond repair, then it’s probably too late. Based on how much time and resources is needed to recover the original state of the object, then the conservator will decide if it is worth the effort. It doesn’t matter how wonderful the object may be, if it’s already too damaged, then conservators are less likely to work with it.
  • A shattered vase, a skull with missing teeth, a painting with discolouration, a book with an unraveling binding, etc. – These are all objects that can be saved. The tasks may be complex, but that just means that it will take more time. It is not impossible.
2) Necessary Tools

Do you need the pigment of a plant that only grows in some inhabitable land? Then, my condolences, your object can't be saved. Not all conservators are fortunate enough to have every tool at their disposal. Even if the conservator is prepared to put in the extra effort, acquiring new tools takes funding, and not every institution is willing to pay a few thousand dollars to save a single ceramic plate. 
  • Let’s say that you have a generous sponsor, who buys all the tools you’ve been dreaming about. Do you know how to use them? Even with all the latest technologies, conservators must have the expertise needed to use these tools, which can take years to learn and special training.
3) Cultural Heritage Value

Here’s where things get tricky. When discussing conservation, this is the topic that causes the most disagreements among professionals. Conservators need to decide whether or not the object is a cherished part of history to determine if it should be saved. There's lots of questions that need answering, and decisions can be swayed by personal views. 
  • Is the artifact the only one of its kind? Who has the right to decide if it's historically valuable? What criteria are they using? How was the object acquired by the museum? Is it useful in the future? – There’s a lot of uncertainty that accompanies questions of value because it is based on individual perspectives and interpretation.
Thankfully, conservation is not always so complex. Conservators often debate with each other to gain new insights, and challenge one another for alternative approaches. Professionals practice open communication and partnership when deciding to conserve an object. Many times, conservators agree about how to best protect an artifact. 

Remember: If an object is considered unqualified for conservation treatment, it is not lost forever. Some artifacts are meant to deteriorate as part of their meaningfulness to the culture. These days, objects can be reproduced, or preserved through digital means (i.e. 3D scanning, virtual archaeology). Conservators just try to do the best that they can for each object, and roll with the punches!

The next time you think about conservation at the museum or archaeological site (check out my first and second articles), consider the above criteria and don’t be afraid to ask the tougher questions! Discussions have the potential to spark new ideas. *sips more wine* 

What do you think? Comment below! 

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