Some people use the terms restoration and conservation interchangeably while others use them as polar opposites (often with restoration used as a pejorative). Do restorers and conservators do the same thing but conservators are more “purist”? Or more skilled, perhaps? Or are we to think these practitioners use radically different solutions to accomplish the same goals? Where is the truth?
Finding answers to these questions requires considerable hashing out but the way I understand it conservation is a profession which is broken down into two categories: “Active” and “Passive/Preventative” conservation. Active relates to implementing treatment on already damaged historic artifacts while preventative refers to control of the artifact’s environment to avert future damage. Most folks are familiar with the active part as this is the only thing sexy enough to make the headlines. Active conservation is the side we are concerned with in this essay.
Restoration is part of what conservators do. The simplest definition for the word restoration is “a process of returning to a known or assumed past state”. Regular conservation treatment entails a variety of tasks: cleaning, repairing broken elements, and compensating for losses (replacing missing parts or color). All of these activities are, by definition, restorative.
So is it possible to do restoration without it being conservation? Maybe. Part of what sets conservators apart from restorers is adoption of a code of ethics. Many American conservators have adopted the AIC Code of Ethics. Among other things, the Code specifies a commitment to documenting the treatment process. This includes description of before and after treatment condition as well as treatments performed. So a practitioner who treats an object outside ethical constraint or without any documentation may be considered as working outside the conservation profession.
Do restorers and conservators perform identical treatments? Yes and no. The Code of Ethics obligates the conservator to choose “materials and methods appropriate to the objectives of each specific treatment and consistent with currently accepted practice”. Hmmm? What does appropriate mean?
I think this is where the world of conservation in private practice comes into the discussion. There are many conservators who work independently rather than as museum staff. These conservators frequently receive objects in their studios which are in regular use unlike their institutional counterparts. Are the “objectives of each specific treatment” different when the object is in regular use? You betcha. When a museum’s historic chair is treated for structural damage there is no objective of making it “sittable” again. But that same treatment may be inappropriate for a chair that will be in regular use. What this means is that appropriate conservation treatment is determined based on understanding the context and values of the object in question. Is it utilitarian? Is it historically significant? Does it hold sentimental value? Conservators treat objects with all these values and their objective is to preserve or enhance those values.
I have friends and colleagues who refer to themselves as “restorers” and others that have adopted the title “conservator”. When they talk shop there is so much overlap it is hard to discern what the difference is. There are many ways of understanding and conceptualizing the subject but this is my take on the matter.