Volume 14, Number 1, Jan. 1992, pp.23-27

Literature Sources for Conservation Research

by Mitchell Hearns Bishop


The interdisciplinary nature of conservation makes it difficult to identify a standard body of literature to use for the purposes of research. A body of conservation literature does exist, however, and there is also useful primary source material directly relating to the conservation profession. In addition, there exist collections of specimen materials that are invaluable for research. This article will concentrate primarily on English language resources.

Abstracting and the Conservation Profession

The first technical journal of conservation studies was Technical Studies in the Field of Fine Arts, published by the Fogg Museum of Harvard University. The managing editor was George Stout. Included in the journal were abstracts of technical literature relating to archaeology and fine arts, drawn from a wide body of literature. The journal was begun in 1932 and ceased publication in 1942 as a result of the Second World War.

In 1955, Abstracts of Technical Studies in Art and Archaeology was published at the Freer Gallery of Art by Rutherford John Gettens and Bertha M. Usilton to cover the years 1943 to 1952. Repatriation of art objects after the war, and experience from sheltering materials during the war, brought together a number of people who decided to devise a format for continuing to share information. Ultimately this led to the founding of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) and the publication of IIC Abstracts, first published in 1955 with a survey back to 1953.

In 1966, responsibility for the publication of IIC Abstracts was taken on by the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and renamed Art and Archaeology, Technical Abstracts (AATA). In 1983 the J. Paul Getty Trust took over publication of AATA.

Beginning with 1991, the publication of supplements to AATA will be resumed, beginning with The Conservation and Technology of Musical Instruments, edited by Cary Karp. The next supplement will be concerned with the conservation of ethnographic painted objects and is currently in preparation by Sue Walston, Eric Hansen and Mitchell Hearns Bishop.

At this time, AATA continues to be the only abstracting and indexing service for the conservation field and for archaeological science.

BCIN: The Bibliographic Database of the Conservation Information Network

BCIN is a collaborative project of CCI (The Canadian Conservation Institute), CAL (The Conservation Analytical Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution), ICCROM (The International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property), ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), and GCI (the Getty Conservation Institute). While BCIN is primarily a bibliographic compilation, some database records in BCIN represent actual library holdings from CAL, ICOMOS, ICCROM, and CCI. This makes portions of the considerable holdings of these institutions accessible to researchers. The GCI library will be selectively introducing its holdings into the database in the future, and ICOM will also be contributing records. BCIN also serves as an online version of AATA.

Art History Bibliographic Resources

The literature of art history is an important resource when researching artifacts regarded as art objects. Conservation literature often does not discuss the working methods of artists. If it is possible to learn what materials an artist used, and why, this can help a conservator understand how the artifact was made and what appearance was intended. A number of very good bibliographic resources exist for art historical literature. Several examples follow.

Bibliographic Resources in Archaeology and Anthropology

Many museum objects were not created as art objects in the sense that our culture thinks of art objects. When Europeans came into contact with people of other parts of the world, objects from these cultures were collected. Information about how these artifacts were made was not always collected or kept in association with the artifacts, however. Archaeological activity has unearthed enormous quantities of material that also has ended up in museum collections. Understanding objects made by other cultures is difficult and sometimes impossible. However, there are large bodies of anthropological) and archaeological literature that can provide information about these cultures and their technologies. Several important resources of this nature follow.

Bibliographic Resources in Science and Technology

The literature of science and technology is used to obtain information concerning the physics and chemistry relevant to conservation and the history of technology as it relates to the manufacture of material culture throughout human history. The following have proved quite useful.

Bibliographic Resources in the History of Technology

A large body of literature deals with the history of technology. This includes engineering, medical science, mineral extraction, woodworking, painting and any other aspect of technology that has been used by human beings in the production of food, material objects and the manipulation of the environment.

An example of a publication concerned with this in its broadest sense, and one specifically concerning the history of Chinese technology, follow. Other literature concerning the history of technology, engineering, the chemical industry, the paint industry, and so forth, can be obtained from publications chronicling the history of these industries.

Primary Sources

Primary sources involve a greater commitment by the researcher than secondary sources. Access to material is usually restricted to advanced researchers, and legal considerations such as confidentiality and copyright are often involved. Finding out what is available in archives is done by consulting catalogs of archives or through the use of computer databases of archival holdings. While these sources are not available to the public, reference librarians can search them on request. In some instances, the correspondence of well known artists has been published. It should be noted that such compilations are never comprehensive due to the ephemeral nature of letters and personal papers, and the large volume of the material.

Restorers' and Conservators' Records

Anthropologists' and Archaeologists' Records

The records of anthropologists and archaeologists can contain information relating to the creation of artifacts that have found their way into museums. Three examples of this type of material follow.

Museum Archives

Museum archives contain documentation on their collections including how and when the objects came into the museums' possession. Increasing awareness of the importance of documentation about museum objects has led to the formation of archives by many museums to house and care for this material. Museum registrars have been instrumental in this activity.

Resources from Manufacturers

Industrial activity and the smaller scale manufacturing typical prior to the industrial revolution generated records of various kinds documenting manufacturing processes and products. Two categories of this type of reference material follow.

Collections of Reference Samples


Understanding of the context in which an artifact was created is critical to understanding the artifact and to a successful preservation plan or conservation treatment. Understanding and respecting the material also makes the work far more interesting.

Defining a methodology for bibliographic research in the field of conservation must be guided by an emphasis appropriate to the object or material that the researcher is investigating. There are so many different topics possible that the topic must always dictate where the researcher looks for bibliographic information. During this process, it becomes apparent that perhaps the most important use of the information the researcher finds is in creating a context in which to view artifacts. Bibliographic research will not always yield a concrete answer, but the inability to find an answer can be extremely important, in itself, as a means of defining an area where research is needed.

While the use of secondary sources is a standard research procedure, experience in working with primary source material has made me aware how an incorrect reading of this material can lead to the endless repetition of errors and misinterpretations. The usefulness of primary source material in research concerning the works of Western artists has been amply demonstrated. The potential for the use of primary source material concerning artifacts of other cultures remains largely unexplored. The potential for using the actual records of anthropologists and archaeologists in documenting the manufacture and subsequent history of artifacts appears to be excellent.

Collections of reference samples in museums and botanical gardens constitute an irreplaceable resource for research of all types. Scientific analysis of some of these substances has only begun, and the matching of this data to analytical information derived from analysis of artifacts is yet to be done in a systematic way. Historically, analytical information on these substances derives from methods that use sample sizes that are too large to be acceptable for the analysis of artifacts. Recent advances in technology make impossible to use smaller samples or non- destructive methods of analysis. Further advances may make it possible to form compilations of analytical data from these reference collections that could then be used to compare with data derived from the analysis of objects. This may permit positive identifications of materials, information which could be used in determining authenticity, making treatment decisions or determining storage conditions. Compilations of this data could then be published as a standard reference source.


I am indebted to many people who very generously provided me with information. Among these are Jessica Brown, Eric Hansen, Paula Volent, Toby Raphael, Kevin Mulroy and Nancy Jackson of the Gene Autry Museum. Much of the material concerning primary sources was discovered by the staff of the former Archives of the History of Art while formulating exhibitions at the Getty Center.

Mitchell Hearns Bishop, Research Assistant
Art & Archaeology Technical Abstracts
Getty Conservation Institute
4503 Glencoe Avenue Marina del Rey, CA 90292

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