Volume 16, Number 2, May 1994, pp.7-8

Great Expectations: Questions and Answers on Conservation Materials and Methods

by Robert L. Feller

Caroline Keck recently editorialized regarding a perennial problem: that our profession "makes no effort to acquaint the public with the whys and hows of what we do.1" She asked for help in reducing the misunderstandings that exist between conservator and public. It is gratifying to note that colleagues are indeed increasingly seeking ways to communicate with those that we hope will benefit by our services2. Undoubtedly, others will soon be joining in the outreach effort and dialogue with the public.

Even between individuals that are more directly involved in conservation, however, most of us realize that there are problems in communication. Some years ago, the accompanying diagram was used to call attention to the wide range of persons with whom the conservator must interact3. The solid-line links were meant to suggest that it may be relatively easy to communicate between colleagues having reasonably close backgrounds. On the other hand, when an attempt is made to cross-talk with persons having considerably different interests and concerns, the task is bound to be more difficult (dotted-line links).

To face up to one aspect of such problems, the American Institute for Conservation established a Task Force on Conservation Science a few years ago to foster better communication between conservators and conservation scientists. We have now a major product of this undertaking: the report just published by AIC, Research Priorities in Art and Architectural Conservation: A Report of an AIC Membership Survey (edited by Eric F. Hansen and Chandra L. Reedy, 1994). Priorities have really not yet been formally established, however; that will require more time. Instead, through the efforts of the AIC speciality groups, several hundred conservators have communicated numerous questions that they have about materials and methods, questions that they consider need answering through increased research. It has been a valuable exercise to see the kind of questions that have come in. The next step will be to begin to sort them out a bit.

Let us think for a moment concerning just what our expectations are in this situation. When we expect the scientist to serve as an "answer man" (or "answer woman"), perhaps by carrying out research, at least two basic questions present themselves: what constitutes a "sensible" question to ask, and what kinds of answers will be considered "satisfactory?" (If I remember rightly, this all comes under the heading of epistemology.) There should be no immediate need to delve into the fine points of philosophy here, but it may help if we review briefly some of the different classes of questions that our answer person (or committee) is likely to be faced with and also if we review something about the different kinds of answers one may expect to receive.


As the editors of the AIC report immediately point out, one soon comes to realize that the questions asked tend to fall into several classes:

  1. There are questions that have been previously rather well considered and for which there seems to be a reasonable answer to be found in the literature (regardless of language or date) of which the questioner may not be aware.
  2. There is another type of question for which a "plausible" answer might be put together based on available information and on someone's considerable experience. Nonetheless, the soundness of this type of "explanation" remains to be verified by direct experiment and observation.
  3. There are also questions that involve facts and principles that are not presently known, so far as one can find out, by anyone anywhere in the world, but which, if some laboratory research were carried out, there is an excellent possibility that an answer can be produced.
  4. Finally, there are questions that cannot be answered at all.

Let us take these up in reverse order, more or less in order of the feasibility of obtaining a reasonable answer.

Is it so shocking to say--up front--that there are some questions for which there is no answer? This is the case for the fourth category of questions. Take, for example, "What interaction effects on paper can be expected from plastic adhesives?" As phrased, the word "interaction" is not precisely defined, nor is "paper," nor "plastic." Such general terms are often used when a question initially comes to mind. Yet, in this case, there is little hope of getting a definite answer unless the question is considered more carefully and posed in quite different terms. Limit the type of paper, define the "interaction" and the adhesive precisely, and there will be a better chance for a definite answer.

"What is the best way of treating ___?" This represents another distinct class of unanswerable question. "Best" and "most effective" are not so readily defined. The basic issue presents itself here concerning whether there ever is one "best" procedure or product for doing any specific task.

In the third category cited, there is the situation in which no one (anywhere) in fact knows the answer to the question. In some instances, a brief set of tests could, perhaps, reveal the answer (whether, for example, more rapid sun bleaching of the discolored degradation products of cellulose would occur if an ordinary glass or if a Plexiglas UF-4 filter were interspersed). Let us say that such a research investigation might be completed in a matter of a few weeks' or months' time. One can envision other questions that may require as much as five years or more of research by well-trained personnel in a well-equipped laboratory to arrive at a reasonably satisfactory answer. All parties involved must appreciate the difference in "magnitude" of the questions being asked if one is to have a reasonable expectation of receiving an answer in a convenient period of time. (We've all had the response "don't hold your breath" while waiting for an answer.)

In the second category cited, there is the question for which it appears that a reasonable answer can be synthesized on the basis of a respectable amount of information already available or out of the extensive experience of some authority on the subject. Such answers, put together out of much learning and no small measure of creative insight, are not based on direct experimental or specific analytical verification. These are "proposed" or "plausible" explanations. It is important to clearly recognize this situation and not expect the offered "explanation" to represent the final word on the matter.

In the first category in our list, there are those questions for which a well-studied and reasonably specific answer seems to be available in the literature. This, however, brings up the very basic matter as to whether the questioner will be satisfied with the answer thus available! For example, there were several questions in the AIC report regarding the stability and mechanism of deterioration of cellulose nitrate. In view of the outstanding booklet by Selwitz4 and the research studies more recently reported by Shashoua et al.5 and Derrick et al.6, one is led to ask: does the information to be found in these studies not provide a satisfactory answer? Did the questioner not know of them? Also: How difficult is it for the conservator to seek out such information? How difficult was the information to comprehend or interpret on one's own? These are some of the considerations that the AIC's Research and Technical Studies Speciality Group will be dealing with in the future with respect to questions in category one.


The last paragraph raises a very basic matter: What constitutes a "satisfactory" answer? In part, this depends on the person asking, does it not? If one is asked, "How do babies come about?", a satisfying answer to a five-year-old might be different from the one given to a teenager. And it would be very much different if the question had been posed by a researcher investigating the action of X and Y chromosomes. Thus, did the question come from a practicing conservator, a scientist, a member of the public, curator, or lawyer? This brings up another matter: Can an effective mechanism be developed to deliver answers that will satisfy a variety of needs, concerns, and backgrounds? Will one tidily composed answer do? Twenty-five words or less? More? How extensive? To an agency intending to provide answers to all covers, this constitutes a basic subject that will have to be considered.

Such thoughts lead directly to another major topic: just how certain does the questioner expect an answer to be? (Einstein long ago said that "man has an intense desire for assured knowledge."7) Are answers that only stand a 50-50 chance of being "correct" (reproducible, verifiable) of value to the conservator? Will one be satisfied with a 30 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent chance of the answer being correct? (Recall that there are several levels of precision in answer to the question: "What is this pigment?"8).

Let us not forget that, within his culture (of Snow's "two cultures"9), the scientist strives to be "most nearly correct" in his answers and explanations. To put it another way: "What is most important for scientists is for their results to be right. This is what the whole scientific endeavor is geared toward"10. This then is one of the key reasons why a conservator may not always get a prompt and unequivocal answer. It is also for this reason that information published in the literature or in a report, however limited it may appear or how little it may satisfy, is likely to be the most reliable we have; it is "on the record" over someone's signature (authorship).

We all have our questions that we want answered. There is no limit. The task of deciding what matters deserve extensive research (category three) and what sort of questions and answers will be of benefit to the field, both in the immediate and long term, is a demanding one for any "group of experts" or "committee of concerned citizens" to undertake. Perhaps we can help each other a bit if we remind ourselves, to begin with, that questions and answers differ notably, dependent in part upon the state of prior knowledge, ease of verification, and degree of assurance required.


1. Keck, Caroline K.: "An Urgent Request", in WAAC Newsletter, Vol. 16, No. 1, January 1994, pp. 9-10.

2. Flynn, Michelle c.: "Public Outreach Report," in AIC News, Vol. 19, No. 2, March 1994, pp. 5-6.

3. Baer, N. S. (ed.): "Training in Conservation," Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1989.

4. Selwitz, C.: Cellulose Nitrate Conservation, Getty Conservation Institute, Marina del Rey, California, 1988.

5. Shashoua, Y.; S. M. Bradley; and V. D. Daniels: "Degradation of Cellulose Nitrate Adhesive," in Studies in Conservation, Volume 87, 1992, pp. 113-119.

6. Derrick, M.; D. Stulik; and E. Ordonez: "Deterioration of Cellulose Nitrate Sculptures Made by Gabo and Pevsner", in Saving the Twentieth Century: The Conservation of Modern Materials, D. Grattan, editor, Canadian Conservation Institute, 1993, pp. 169- 182.

7. Einstein, Albert: Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, New York, 1954, p.22.

8. Artists' Pigments, Volume 1, Cambridge University Press, National Gallery of Art, 1986.

9. Snow, C. P.: The Two Cultures: and A Second Look: An Expanded Version of 'The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution', Cambridge University Press, London, 1963.

10. Segestale: Book Review in Science," Vol. 263, 1994, pp.837- 838.

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