October 8, 2020 - 10:50 AM

Conservation and Restoration

This post is a part of a continuing series about the work of the Catherdal's Textile Conservation Lab. Read more posts here.

To many people, the words conservation and restoration are used interchangeably to describe work done to objects that have experienced wear over time. Within the field of conservation, though, there are varied approaches to what is best for specific items.

Conservation is an alternative to the more traditional path of restoration. This practice follows the general principle that less is more. It aims to prevent damage and manage any risks for further deterioration, in respect to display or adverse environmental conditions. The objective is based on stabilizing the original materials rather than reconstructing the sections that are lost or damaged. In contrast restoration more traditionally refers to bringing an object to look as it might have originally.

Depending on the situation, an object with the same type of loss could be conserved or restored. Take, for example, a carpet that is showing signs of wear such as holes or missing pile; in a museum setting, a conservator might use a support fabric behind the area to stabilize what foundation and pile are left without any further structural intervention. Because no one will be walking on the carpet, this intervention will support the area of weakness and will prevent continuing loss.

The scenario changes when the same carpet is an important part of a person’s home. A conservator could still make preventive recommendations, such as moving it out of a high traffic area or to a location where heavy furniture is not moved on it, or out of direct sunlight. In order for the carpet to continue as a functional object it would be important to not just stabilize the area but to intervene. In order for it to withstand use in a client’s home, focused restoration for a weak area could include recreating discrete areas of loss by rewarping or repiling the carpet for visual and structural integrity. In every case, all steps are documented so there is a record of what work has been completed for future reference.

Conversations about differing approaches occur for all types of objects treated at the Lab, including the two sets of 17th century tapestries The Life of Christ and the Acts of the Apostles that are a part of the Cathedral’s collection. These small decisions for all items in their care take on great importance as conservators consider the greater philosophical and ethical conversations taking place in the field. Often, as the team works on pieces that continue to be integrated into the lives of clients, treatments are not always one or the other but often a continuum of choices to be made depending on the circumstance.

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