Volume 19, Number 1 .... January 1997

Conservation Treatment Labels
"...and everything old is new again."

by Betty Engel

(Several months ago I treated a painting with a history of chronic flaking. The information on its background was provided by a label attached in 1980 by Jim Greaves describing its condition and treatment. Having a vague sense that WAAC had something to do with these, I asked Betty Engels, an early WAAC member, to write a short note on the history of the labels. As it turns out, it was a timely request. The Editor.)

Remember the "Conservator's Treatment Labels" ? The what? I had completely forgotten about them until recently when a painting came to our studio with one attached to the backing board. The label gave the name and address of the conservator who had treated the painting, the date of treatment, and listed the various materials used in the treatment (lining adhesive, varnish and inpainting medium). The varnish on the painting had become matte in many areas and it was interesting and useful to know exactly what it was. The information helped us devise an appropriate treatment and enabled us to make observations about the aging characteristics of the varnish.

The idea for treatment labels grew out of a project of artist interviews done by LACMA conservators in the late 1970's. Jim Greaves noted the consistent absence of solid technical information about artist's materials and artist's preferences for surface finishes. He proposed in a letter to the editor, WAAC Newsletter vol. 1 no. 3, that WAAC as an organization and its individual members consider an active promotion of a labeling system for artists and conservators.

In 1980 the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art designed and printed some trial labels for WAAC. These were distributed to artists in the Los Angeles area and met with a positive response. Unfortunately, independent funding for this project was never found and the labels fell out of use. At the same time, a label for members to record basic conservation treatment information was being developed. The label was initially designed to include a reference to WAAC. However, legitimate concerns were raised concerning the implied endorsement of the logo, and in the end, the labels were printed without any reference to WAAC and made available to the membership. In May 1981, Conservation Materials, Ltd. took over distribution of the labels through their catalogue.

I think many of us recognized the value of having treatment information travel with the object and used the labels quite faithfully for a while. But gradually, the usual time pressures allowed us to rationalize that our written treatment records were sufficient and would always stay with the object. In the case of museum objects this is probably true and museum conservators generally have the luxury of observing the long-term effectiveness of the treatments and the ageing properties of the materials. But most private conservators have no way of monitoring the objects they have treated and conservation records often get separated from the object. The information on how certain materials and treatments have held up, particularly in uncontrolled environments, is lost.

Perhaps now that computers would make it so easy to produce labels of any size and configuration, it's time once again for WAAC to promote their use.

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