What is Conservation? (Part I: Preliminary knowledge)
When people ask about my future programme, I get a lot of blank looks in response to "it's a Master's in the Conservation of Archaeological and Museum Objects." Aside from that being a mouthful of a title, I think people often hear "archaeology" and get stars in their eyes with images of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft dancing in their heads–and while trust me, I love of both those characters, that is an over-the-top, fictionalized representation of only part of archaeology, and conservation is a different animal entirely. I wanted to write this post as a longer winded explanation for people I don't see often, and as a preparation for how to answer that question in person. I want to come up with a sort of "elevator pitch" where I can explain in a few sentences that get the point across without being too detailed or losing someone's attention–and without causing further confusion, which often happens too. However, at this point I have not worked as a conservator and so only have a shallow knowledge about the field. I'd like to do a series that I can refer to as my knowledge grows and also so that people can find out more about the career if they're interested. These descriptions can and will change as I get further in my programme, and maybe I'll link them all together in the future. First I will cover a very basic, concise explanation to start with if you have no idea at all what archaeological conservation is, and then I'll detail it a bit more loquaciously for the curious (don't feel bad if you want to skip that part).
A conservator is a specialized archaeologist who works closely with individual artefacts (typically in a museum laboratory setting) to clean, preserve, safely store and transport, and study them in an in-depth way. A lot of conservation work requires a detailed application of chemistry principles (in fact I took a specific conservation chemistry course as part of my application to the programme). Additional knowledge in history, anthropology, and art is (from what I've gathered) necessary as a conservator. The ability to research these subjects to inform decisions is also paramount to the job.
Much of what a conservator does is related to cleaning an object. Dirt present on an object can cause damage and cause the object to degrade in certain circumstances. "Dirt" to a conservator is defined as any material that is undesirably present on the object. For example, the presence of beeswax on an artefact might be desired for one artefact (for example in the bindings of a historic book) and not in another (for example if beeswax dripped from a candle onto historic furniture just before the conservator got to it). In the second example, beeswax is dirt and should be cleaned off. In the first, it is an important part of the object and should be preserved. Dirt does not have a universal chemical composition and must be assessed uniquely for every object. There are also occasions where dirt needs to be left in place even if it is undesirable due to the fragility of an object. Sometimes cleaning does more damage than it is worth. One of the guiding principles of conservation is that any decisions made about the object are damaging (even leaving it alone and doing no work to it). Therefore, the conservator should choose the course of action that does the least harm and fits the other constraints on the object (such as financial and what it is needed for in the future).
But why is a deep understanding of chemistry necessary for simply cleaning an object, you may ask? Well, every object is made up of chemicals. Every substance in every object on earth has a specific chemical makeup. Even just rinsing something with water needs to be considered on a chemical level; water is a highly polar molecule, an incredibly effective solvent for many substances (meaning it will dissolve and rinse away a fuck ton of stuff), and can increase the likelihood, speed, and extent of degradation on many substances (like iron). Not to mention that rarely in the real world do we work with perfectly purified water–even dissolved CO2 present in water changes the pH. Other suspended contaminants can and will be present in any water. Simply rinsing an object with water may: 1. remove desirable, historically important substances ("dirt" which is not actually dirt, like microscopic flakes of paint for example); 2. cause irreparable damage or speed up the degradation process; and 3. introduce unintended contaminants to the object that may have degradative properties. Add any number of detergents (each with their own chemical makeup) to the water and it is even more complicated. It is the job of the conservator to understand how each substance will act together with every other substance (including things that many take for granted, such as the composition of the air, humidity, temperature, differences between excavation conditions and storage conditions... the list is infinite really). It is extremely detailed, nitty gritty, and precise work that requires an elaborate thought process before any work is even begun on the object itself. A conservator must also know the history of the object (to make decisions about the most important aspects of its conservation), the cultural importance of the object (to understand its future use and significance) as well as external concerns such as funding and time constraints. And this is actually a very short list.
Apply the above very brief discussion of cleaning complications to the other aspects of conservation (like storage, transport, excavation procedures, repairs, preservation treatment, etc) and you can begin to understand why it is important to have trained professionals working on these precious artefacts. Professionals trained simply as archaeologists may not have the background required for delicate conservation work–and have their own tasks to better use their time for anyway. Thus the need for individuals specifically trained in archaeological conservation.
What kind of work can a trained conservator expect when they graduate? This is a multifaceted question, and one that I'll have a better answer to when I've done more of my official studies. Many conservators are employed by museums and heritage trusts in a laboratory setting to help process new artefacts as well as maintain the existing collection. I won't get into it on this post, but one of the reasons I chose a university in the U.K. is because of the larger opportunity for specialized conservation positions compared with the U.S. Sometimes, conservators will be present on an excavation site to assist with proper handling, initial cleaning, and safe transportation of excavated artefacts in particularly delicate situations (I think this job would be rad as hell). Conservators typically specialize even further; for example, as a book or paper conservator, building conservator, marine artefacts conservator, etc. As for me, I'm not entirely sure at this point where I want to specialize, but everything I have discussed above excites and invigorates me to begin a career in conservation.
Note: All images in this post were taken by me at the British Museum in 2016. Any information in the captions was pulled from display cards where I recorded it. I do not have further information than what is included with the captions; I wish I had taken better documentation of the objects I got to see while there but I only had a few hours and was overwhelmed in the best way possible!