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Identify Your Treasures

When conservators look at objects they ask themselves a series of questions, the answers to which provide the information needed to assess condition and to recommend care and/or conservation.

The questions are:

  • What is it?
  • Why is it important to the owner and to others?
  • What is it made of?
  • How was it made?
  • What is wrong with it?
  • What caused the damage(s)?
  • What could the owner do to preserve it?
  • What could a conservator do to preserve and conserve it?

In many ways, the owner needs to ask these same questions. One of your most important first steps in caring for any object you value is to know what it is, what it is made of, and how it was made. Any decisions about care or preservation must be based on the answers to these questions.

To determine what an object is, the first question should be "What does it do?" The function of an object is usually fairly apparent, although anyone who is a member of a tool collectors group will know that they have "whatsit" sessions at all of their meetings where they discuss tools whose functions have gotten lost and forgotten through time.

Sometime you can tell by comparing the object to something similar. You can look for wear patterns on the item that might indicate how it was held or used and use the web to search for information and to look for similar items.

The first thing to determine when trying to figure out what an object is made from is whether the material is organic or inorganic. In general, organic materials and inorganic materials respond to their environments and to other stimuli in very different ways. For example, organic materials warp, distort, mold, and rot when exposed to high relive humidity. On the other hand, inorganic metals will corrode and rust. Organic materials, such as textiles and basketry, can be badly soiled by dust and dirt accumulation, whereas glass, an inorganic material, is less affected by dust and surface dirt.

  • Organic materials are made from once living things. They include wood, plant fibers, other plant materials, paper, textiles, threads, yarns, basketry, leather, parchment, hair, bone, horn, ivory, claws, gums, some resins, and plastics.
  • Inorganic materials are derived from minerals. Inorganic materials include ceramics, glass, metals, and stone.

Understanding the technology used to make objects can be fairly difficult, especially if the technology is no longer used today. However, this understanding will explain many of the characteristics and qualities of your object.

For example, if you have an old silk textile like a flag or a ribbon, it may be extremely fragile with shattered fibers that crumble as you touch them. Silk was made in the orient and was sold to shippers for export beck to the west. It was sold by weight. In order to get more for the same amount of silk, some manufacturers began "weighting" it with metallic salts using metal ions like arsenic and tin. Metals salts were also added to make the fabric heavier to affect its drape and appearance. These metallic salts have deteriorated over time and form chemicals that attack the silk fibers, leaving them brittle and easily fractured.

So, understanding silk manufacturing technology helps to understand fractured silk objects and tells us that this deterioration is inherent in the materials and technology of this silk. We cannot stop this deterioration, but we may be able to slow it or to protect the object from future damages resulting from this technological source of deterioration.

Once you understand what your object is made of and how it was made you can begin to determine its condition. You may know from the materials and technology if a condition feature is a result of manufacture and use or a result of deterioration.

  • Structural Issues
    When thinking about the condition of an object, the conservator will first consider structural issues. Is the item broken? Are there missing parts? Is the structure loose? Structural problems should be investigated and described first because they potentially impact the survival of the entire piece.
  • Cosmetic Issues
    After the structural condition of a piece is determined, a conservator will look to more surface, aesthetic, or cosmetic elements of the object such as paint layers, finish, dirt, and other disfigurement. The distinction between structural and cosmetic condition issues is important and is one of the ways to distinguish the work of conservators from that of restorers.



Preservation Principles

Types of Material

Types of Objects
   Books / Bibles / Scrapbooks
   Works of Art
   Textiles / Clothing / Uniforms
   Tools / Mechanical / Instruments
   Dishes / Glassware / Silverware
   Native American Items
   Natural History Specimens

More Resources
   Preservation Documents  (pdfs)
   Glossary of Terms
   See what we've done

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