Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Preservation vs Conservation

Written by Daniel DelViscio

People often use the terms “preservation and “conservation” interchangeably to convey the same meaning.  If you look up these terms in a dictionary you will probably see that one is provided as a synonym of the other. They both fundamentally mean the act of preventing decay.  In the museum and archives community, however, preservation and conservation are two very different processes.

The Smithsonian Institute defines preservation as, “the systematic application of principles that prolong the life of all collections materials—analog and digital”.2 Monitoring the conditions in which records are kept in is one of the ways in which archivists can preserve records before they need to be repaired by professional conservators. Conservation, on the other hand, primarily focuses on fixing individual materials that have been damaged over time, by natural disaster, or by accident. And while conservation often focuses on a single item, preservation takes into account the conditions of the entire archive by controlling things like temperature, humidity, and way in which the records are housed. Finally, conservation is typically much more expensive. 

In preservation, first and foremost is the proper handling of archival materials - such as wearing gloves when handling photographs. The second most important practice for archival preservation is the control of the climate within the archives. According to the National Archives to preserve documents and photographic materials conditions need to be maintained at around 650 between 35% and 45% relative humidity.1 This slows the aging process and keeps mold from forming. No one likes mold.

However, sometimes archivists are confronted by items that warrant restoration. Some institutions like larger universities and museums have internal conservation departments, but most archivists have to outsource to institutions that have the proper laboratories, tools, and trained conservators.

On March 19, 2015 a preservation assessment was conducted by Jessica Keister from the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia, PA. In the assessment, she highlighted this photograph of David Warner. Looking at the photograph we can see why it’s been flagged, and Keister explains that the photograph has been damaged by prolonged red iron staining from a tintype which was housed with the portrait. A photograph like this is an example of an item in need of conservation and not preservation.

But where do you go to get your materials put back together? For institutions in the north-eastern United States, the answer is the conservation department at the Winterthur Museum here in Delaware. Winterthur was established by Henry Algernon du Pont in the early 20th century to be both a home and a museum and today it houses one of the most prestigious institutions for conservation learning in the country.3 And on November 4th we at the Delaware State University Archives will take a special tour of Winterthur. But you’ll have to read about that in the next blog post.

            1. A. Ernest, Conrad. "Realistic  Environment." National Archives and Records Administration. March 1, 1999. Accessed October 15, 2015. https://www.archives.gov/preservation/environmental-control/realistic-preservation-environment.html.
2. "Preservation." Smithsonian Institution Archives. Accessed October 14, 2015. http://siarchives.si.edu/services/preservation#1.
3. "Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library." Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. Accessed October 14, 2015. http://www.winterthur.org/?p=515&src=headerfooter.

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