What does "artifact conservation" mean, anyway?
July 23, 2012
A few weeks have passed since Nicole and I have started working at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and we've slowly gotten used to what spending the summer in Skagway entails. As we're two gals originally from the East Coast, it's taken some time to get used to the fact that the sun shines (or does it?) for 18 hours each day and the temperature hovers right around sixty degrees Fahrenheit. But we've taken the change in climate (and landscape!) in stride, finding that the best thing to do on weekends is to lace up our hiking boots and venture out on the local trails. We're quite lucky that Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park is hosting us as artifact conservation interns this summer, and we're definitely enjoying not only exploring Alaska, but also working on artifacts in the museum collection.
Well, different factors like temperature, humidity, and light exposure have an effect on humans (think chills, sweating, and sunburn), but these kinds of environmental conditions also have an effect on objects. For example, if you are sweating due to high temperature and humidity, chances are, a wooden artifact will be drinking in that moisture in the air, leading to possible mold and structural issues. On the flip side, if you are getting sunburned, you can bet that a silk textile will also be feeling the effect of the sun's UV-rays, leading to bleaching and structural destruction.
Art history and fine arts are two other disciplines that art conservation ties together. Not only do conservators need to know the behavior and reactivity of different materials, but it is important to be able to understand artifacts and artworks from a historical perspective as well. After all, without knowledge of how and why things are made, an appropriate decision for the care of an object cannot be made. Think about the Mona Lisa, for instance. If conservators were trying to clean a layer of dirt off the painting, but knew little about Leonardo da Vinci or his painting process, they might use a cleaning method that inadvertently takes off a layer of paint with the surface dirt, perhaps destroying the painting for future study and enjoyment.
Nicole and I have begun treating artifacts in the collection, including two automaton manikins, a mounted ram's head, an arch made of wood burl, a brass cash register, and a copper still, among others. Stay tuned here for updates on this conservation project throughout the summer, including a variety of artifact treatments as well as a hike on the Chilkoot Trail and a series of public workshops.