Preventive conservation

Carolyn Rose


During the past 20 years, object conservation practices, much as those in other disciplines, have shifted emphasis and have increasingly concentrated on aspects of preventive care rather than remedial treatments. This approach has been especially important in responsibly caring for the vast archaeological, historical, and anthropological collections in some of our larger museums and repositories throughout the country. Studies concerning the nature, sources and mechanisms of deterioration, have led to the development of methods of reducing the rate of deterioration, thus preventing further damage. Additionally, these studies have enabled conservators to develop treatments that are less intrusive and which better reflect specific preservation goals. These goals may include, for example, the retention of historical and cultural remnants or modifications or other important research information. Most recently, as the natural history communities begin to examine the viability of the vast holdings of natural science materials in museums and institutions world-wide, these principles of preventive care are being applied to assure the long-term survival of these irreplaceable resources and the information they contain.

Equally important to using a preventive conservation approach for treatment guidelines is the promotion of such an approach in all collection related museum activities, including access, research, and public programming. However, because these uses of the collections do not always complement preservation priorities, attention and time must be allocated to developing policies and procedures for the handling and use of collections, for participation in planning, budget development and resource allocation, as well as for education and training in conservation awareness and collections care. In fact, through the training of other museum professionals in activities such as rehousing and monitoring collections, institutions have effectively doubled the resources available to improve the care of collections.

The impact of a preventive care approach for objects also is dependent on the development of effective methods for assessing needs and producing staged implementation plans. The effectiveness of these preventive conservation plans additionally is dependent upon the involvement of as many staff members as possible in the planning process. In this mode, the approach is less reactive and more readily accepted.

Preventive conservation approaches and strategies used in the conservation of objects will be discussed, highlighting the emerging field of natural science conservation, its goals and challenges. In addition, case studies, such as the design and evaluation of materials for an exhibit, collections care training, and planning strategies will be highlighted as examples of cooperative approaches to preventive care.