The roles of the conservation scientist and the conservator in the development of treatments for painted objects

Eric F. Hansen and Rosa Lowinger


Conservators have a limited number of available techniques and materials at hand to stabilize objects through interventive actions such as the introduction of a consolidant. In the case of the treatment of flaking or powdering paint, the introduction of a consolidant must be achieved in a manner that imparts sufficient strength of consolidation to the paint and adhesion to the support while causing the minimal amount of change in the appearance of the object.

One of the roles of the conservation scientist is to provide information that supports the conservator’s options for selecting the most appropriate treatment. By first understanding what the actual treatment needs are, then carrying out applied research, analysis or a review of relevant data from diverse technical fields, the scientist may be able to augment the conservator’s understanding of existing techniques and add to the repertory of potential treatment options by introducing new materials and developing new techniques. In this paper, the authors’ experience in the development and assessment of materials and techniques for the consolidation of matte painted objects is used as a case study of how the interchange between conservators (practical aspects of conservation) and conservation scientists (theoretical and technical aspects of physical systems) further confidence in the choice of specific materials and techniques for individual types of paint.

The reinterpretations of previous erroneous conclusions and suggestions for new testing strategies for the treatment of painted objects are presented with specific examples, including: 1) the results of personal interviews with over 100 objects conservators in North America concerning materials and methods for the consolidation of paint; 2) the results of a review of the conservation literature and paint and coatings industry literature concerning matte (high pigment volume concentration) paint; 3) the results of consultations with paint and coatings industry scientists; 4) laboratory studies on the treatment of facsimiles of painted wood; 5) case histories of the treatment of paint on ethnographic objects, ancient Egyptian wood objects, distemper easel and panel paintings, and contemporary works of art including sculpture and paper; and, 6) retreatment of previously consolidated painted objects where unacceptable gloss or darkening was the result.

These examples not only illustrate the individual roles of the scientist and conservator in treatment development for matte paint but also detail the benefits that have resulted from collaborative effort.