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Subject: Conservation guidelines

Conservation guidelines

From: Tom Dixon <tom.dixon>
Date: Thursday, May 9, 2002
Rae Atira-Soncea <rae.atira-soncea [at] arts__state__wi__us> writes

>What criteria does your organization use to determine which pieces
>to treat or what to (basically) ignore. We have specific criteria
>for de-accessioning, but that seems significantly different then
>making treatment decisions.

It depends to a large extent on the type of organisation and
collections involved.  The typical public art museum approach is to
establish a 1-5 conservation priority and a 1-5 curatorial priority
and then start at the top with the 1/1's and work down to the point
where you are facing routine work.  In the conservation priorities,
a 1 is an item which even if stored in optimal conditions,  if
nothing is done will be in worse condition in 12 months, or has a
condition which is contagious or a health and safety issue (mould,
insect infestation, etc).  Unless it is a real piece of junk,  1
means you drop everything and get to work on it.  A priority 2
requires major treatment, usually structural, by a specialist
conservator (i.e. a paintings conservator to carry out a varnish
removal)--but given good storage, it will be in the same condition
in 12 months as it is today, therefore time is not a critical issue.
Priority 3 needs a cosmetic treatment which carried out by a
specialist conservator, or may be a minor structural treatment
carried out by a specialist craftsperson.  Priority 4 is either an
item which is inherently very fragile and will always require
special consideration when being moved (big heavy sculptures, every
ball gown in your collection, ancient glass items, etc,) or an item
which requires minor preparation by technical officers such as
backing, framing, etc.  A priority 5 is a displayable, lendable,
robust and given normal museum handling and barring being hit by a
bus, looking forward to a long and productive existence sort of
artwork.  In my experience, 5 conservators can look at an item and 4
of them will usually come up with the same priority number

Of equal importance in institutions where need far outstrips
resources is the consideration of value/importance and in my
experience nobody likes doing this and disagreements are rife and
charged.  Nevertheless, there is little point in spending weeks
working on an item that can be easily and cheaply replaced, is about
to be deaccessioned, or of which the museum has many others or
wouldn't buy again in a fit.  Therefore, Curatorial Priority 1 items
are, for example, a national treasure, monetarily so valuable it
would be unlikely you could afford to replace it even if a
replacement were available, so identified with your institution that
its absence seriously affects the institution's reason for being. 2
is an item of great importance, cultural or monetary value and
either a key work in your collection or an item of value in other
ways.   3 is a useful and desirable item in your collection, but
can be replaced with something equivalent if necessary.   A number 4
would not be replaced if destroyed, but is useful as a study piece,
or has some other value in your collection. A number 5 is of no real
importance to the institution, an item of which there are many
others or one so easily replaced it would not justify spending time
or money on it or an item you wish to deaccession but has little
monetary value.  No correspondence will be entered into regarding
these guidelines, which I have had to draw up because I have never
been able to get curators to.

1/1's 1/2's and maybe 1/3s are important items requiring immediate
attention and are all worked on, probably in descending order as
soon as possible, probably on an emergency basis.  When they are all
done, life settles down and you start discussions about is it more
important to do a 3/2 or a 2/3.

If your collection is small enough and your resources large enough,
this system works well.  We surveyed 3,500 paintings in our
collection and established conservation priorities very

However, there are times when numbers become overwhelming and a
survey will just take too long.  Many years ago we had one paper
conservator and 25,000 prints and drawings and 13,000 photos and I
estimated a survey would take 12 years to complete- by which time
she'd have to start over again.  So Plan B may be to work on the
items that are scheduled for display or are requested for loan- they
are probably the key works anyway.

Finally, don't neglect preventive conservation measures.  Treatment
is important, but if items are being damaged in storage, there is
little point in treating something and returning it to a dangerous
situation.  This is where professionally qualified advice is so
important to you and this is where your first commitment should be.

Thomas Dixon
Chief Conservator
National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne Australia

                  Conservation DistList Instance 15:76
                   Distributed: Friday, May 10, 2002
                       Message Id: cdl-15-76-005
Received on Thursday, 9 May, 2002

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