Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works Objects Specialty Group
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From an Idea of Creativity to a Product of Reliability: Update of Research on Electrochemical Testing of Exhibit and Storage Materials
Judy Bischoff and Jason Bustamente, National Park Service, Harper's Ferry Conservation Center
Rick Corbett, Corrosion Testing Laboratories, Inc.
Chandra Reedy, University of Delaware
Marc Walton, Oxford University
As is often the case, a creative spark for this idea originated during an informal discussion between a conservation scientist and a corrosion engineer, over lunch with the idea sketched out on a napkin. After a discussion of the efficacy of Oddy tests, the typical method in conservation for identifying potentially-damaging exhibit and storage case materials, the engineer described electrochemical tests that are standard in industry for assessing compatibility of materials used in conjunction with metals. We immediately saw that electrochemical testing could be an advance for the conservation field, providing a fast, quantitative and objective measure of the rate of tarnish or corrosion on metal artifacts. A few quick experiments in the laboratory supported the potential usefulness of this approach.

However, transfer of this (or any) technology from industry to conservation practice can never be done without extensive experimentation, for many reasons. For example, in industry, the applications of electrochemical testing differ from those in conservation. What might be considered an acceptable corrosion rate in industry (some damage to the metal but not enough to cause failure during the probable lifetime of the product) might be unacceptable in conservation (where the development of any visually-apparent tarnish or corrosion on metal would be considered problematic). Thus we found it necessary to develop our own database of experimental results from well-known materials before results on new materials could be interpreted for conservation applications. Preliminary results have been reported in Studies in Conservation (1998, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 183-196).

A new method that at first appeared to be immediately applicable to conservation has instead turned into a multi-year team-effort research project. While we still believe that this method has great potential to provide rapid and quantitative tests of compatibility of materials with metals, for interpretation to be quick and reliable, more experimental data must be collected and analyzed and optimum conditions for effective use of this method must be determined. We will summarize work completed to date and discuss what else remains to be done. The difficulties of conducting long-term research in a field where funding sources are short-term and limited will also be highlighted, along with the value and complexities of collaborative research between conservation and industry.

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