Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Restoration vs. Conservation: What’s the Difference?

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.


  1. I'm very pleased that you've written this and drawn the distinction between museum and non-museum conservation. It's a topic that I've struggled with, mainly I believe, because so much of this topic is written by academic in museum studies for whom the definition of appropriate fits within the four walls of a climate controlled museum setting. I remember thinking to myself while hearing about ethical standards "how can I ever return a piece to a client and say: here's your chair back. please never sit on it again." I've always held that the best way to preserve an object was to maintain its functionality.
    There are good repairs and bad repairs and they all become part of the object's history. We would certainly not discount an original 18th century piece that had been 'updated' or repaired over the course its two centuries. I don't understand why a modern, worthy repair cannot hold the same value today, that is, keeping an object functional ensures that it will more likely to outlast its maker and its repairer for future generations to enjoy.
    This essay is part of a very complex discussion and you've added much clarity to it.

  2. This has been hashed out to angels on the head of a pin. Pages and pages, lectures presentations, student papers....It make me think of Sisyphus. Still, I am happy that the idea of restoration as one of the things that a conservator does in a broader sense of preservation seems finally to have stuck. After all, "restore" simply means to put something to a previous state. The reason it gets so much attention is that "restorers" historically have taken the object back too far, whereas conservators do their best to keep the restoration to the minimum that allows the purpose of the object to be understood, or in the case of an object that is to be used...to be used, without further damage. Remember, conservation is a sep by step approach. "do nothing" can be a legitimate treatment. Then ever more intrusive work: stabilization is first, then some degree of restoration. That degree is a slippery thing, and institutional conservators have it better than independent ones, since they can draw on the opinions and experience of many colleagues, distilling all that input to a reasonable, safe approach. Independents can get stuck in an ego trap and end up off kilter, overdoing or misinterpreting. (humility helps) Many aphorisms: repair or restore evidence of damage and misuse, maintain evidence of normal age and use. Allow the age to be, but bring the appearance to one that indicates thoughtful, caring maintenance rather than abusive. I've always felt that one of the important reasons that a furniture conservator should be a highly skilled craftsman, well versed in historic trade practices is that s/he should be able, not only to "re-execute" period work on the object to maintain continuity, but also so that a private client who wants something to look bright and new, can be offered a recreation instead of hammering the poor old thing into a Joan Rivers state of being. Sorry...got going with brain drivel.