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What Is Conservation?

Conservation is the art and science of preserving material culture. The professionals who do this work are called conservators. Conservators examine, study, and make recommendations for the safekeeping of historical and archaeological objects. They may work for museums, other cultural institutions such as libraries or galleries, or in private practice.

The primary goals of modern conservation are to stop or slow the deterioration of cultural materials and to ensure their long-term preservation. Agents of deterioration may include moisture, light, oxygen, heat, biological organisms, pollution, and mishandling. Preservation and stabilization may be accomplished through active conservation treatments or through preventive conservation, such as providing good storage and exhibition conditions. The methods used by conservators depend on the material of the object, the environment in which it was found, and its physical condition.

The work of conservators is important not only because it preserves artifacts but also because the careful examination and cleaning involved may reveal information about artifacts. For example, discovering the material composition of an object may assist in dating it and in understanding the technology of the relevant time period. Or, during cleaning, a conservator might uncover features such as tool marks or maker’s marks that provide information about how, when, and where an object was made. All of this information contributes to a more complete understanding of the object and culture being studied.

About the Kelsey Conservation Laboratory

The Kelsey Museum has a long history of valuing conservation and preservation. In 1975, Kelsey director John Pedley hired the museum’s first professional conservator, Amy Rosenberg. Ms. Rosenberg was responsible for establishing the Conservation Laboratory, and for the first time, all preservation activities began to be fully documented. Since 1975, many undergraduate and graduate students have learned about conservation through the museum’s laboratory. The Kelsey currently employs two full-time conservators, Suzanne Davis and Caroline Roberts, both of whom specialize in the treatment of archaeological objects.

Conservation is a fundamental part of almost all Kelsey activities. The laboratory is responsible for all exhibit and loan conservation issues. It also pursues an active program of preventive conservation that encompasses climate control, environmental monitoring, and integrated pest management. Kelsey conservators also pursue conservation treatment and research initiatives that support the long-term preservation of the museum’s collection.

Conservation education remains an important part of the lab’s mission. Students are hosted by the lab on a regular basis, and the conservators lecture for a variety of university programs.

Field Conservation

The conservation laboratory has provided conservation for Kelsey-sponsored fieldwork since 1975. In addition, the conservators provide preservation planning and grant-writing services.