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Preservation, Conservation, Restoration

Working in museums, you tend to hear the words preservation, conservation, and restoration thrown around a lot. Outside of museums, people use the words interchangeably when talking about collections, but really, the words mean very different things. And of course, when not talking about museums at all, the words again mean something completely different!

Depending on a museum's mission, the ultimate goal is to keep an object in an unchanged state throughout it's life. In some cases, intervention may need to occur.


Preservation is the first of these - it involves the preventive measures to keep an object safe and in an unchanged state for as long as possible. Temperature, humidity, light levels, packing materials, and many other criteria must be met to keep a piece from deteriorating. These will be discussed in later posts, along with ways to keep those items you hold dear as long as possible.

The terms 'preventive conservation' more accurately describes the actions taken to preserve objects, as you're trying to prevent any intervention by creating optimized conditions for the objects continued longevity. Digital preservation of an object (whether it's three-dimensional or 2D, such as photographs) is also important in terms of data management, overall record keeping, as well as access.

The video below, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art quickly shows how they try and save space in their collections storage by storing several dresses of the same era in a single muslin sleeve. Each is padded out to prevent creases, and the sturdiest is placed on bottom to help keep rigidity.


Conservation is the second. Not just a word for keeping nature intact, conservation also means the act of intervening to help keep an object stable by removing, if possible, the items that are causing the deterioration. Additionally, conservation can occur to help repair an object in order to keep it stable.

There's a variety of conservation fields, all of which require practice in chemistry, including textile, painting, paper, objects, furniture, archaeological, and so many more fields.

Here's a quick (and neat) video on the conservation of a Jackson Pollock Mural in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

One project I've been following is the conservation of the Todd Oldham dress below, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Collection,1991-1992. The metallic threads and sequins are very reminiscent of the 1920s, but even though it's only 30 years old, the dress needed to be stabilized and many of the threads and sequins resewn to keep it from falling apart further.


Restoration is the last of the three words individuals use interchangeably when talking about museums and museum collections. Restoration is the removal of old parts and replacing them with new ones to get the item back to working order - or restoring it to its original condition. In many cases, when restoring an item, you lose the object's history - the same can happen in conservation, but Restoration is not something that is typically done in a museum setting, unless there's a reason it needs to be in use, like the Virginia Museum of Transportation's 611 Locomotive, which up until 2018, was used for excursions and other steam engine related activities.

Ultimately, museums preserve material culture, and through conservation, can keep objects from in a stable condition by removing properties that will cause further deterioration. Restoration is utilizing new materials to bring something back in to use.

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