JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 1, Article 8 (pp. 105 to 110)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1991, Volume 30, Number 1, Article 8 (pp. 105 to 110)



ABSTRACT—The Historic Area Conservation Technician Monitoring Program provides for the maintenance and preventive conservation of thousands of 18th-century objects exhibited at Colonial Williamsburg. The program was initiated in the fall of 1986 in response to the growing realization that the collections exhibited in 225 room exhibitions required closer monitoring by experienced conservation-trained staff. The program addresses the myriad problems associated with exhibition of collections and the technicians serve as liaisons with professionals in many other departments.

THE HISTORIC Area Conservation Technician Monitoring Program is a critical and vital part of the conservation effort at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. With a professional conservation staff oriented toward maintenance, prevention, and monitoring rather than treatment and research, the program meets a variety of needs not provided for by the typical conservation lab.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in Williamsburg, Virginia, began its restoration in 1926 and opened to the public in 1930. Today it operates a variety of museum and other units that exhibit or house collections, including a 173-acre 18th-century city featuring exhibitions and trade presentations. The collections of the foundation include about 83,000 17th- 18th- and 19th-century objects; about 2,600 folk art pieces; 1,350 early European and American toys; 40,000 archaeological objects; 500,000 photographs, negatives, drawings, and blueprints; and 25,000 rare books and manuscripts. These objects are exhibited in approximately 225 rooms of exhibition space. The collection can be found dispersed over an 8 2 mi Historic Area. The foundation employs 4,000 people over the course of a year, with approximately 1,000 people working in proximity to the collections in one capacity or another. The foundation contracted its first conservation professional in the 1920s, but not until 1985 was a Department of Conservation established. The department now employs a staff of 17, and laboratories have been developed to specialize in the conservation of furniture, upholstery, metals and arms, textiles, archaeological materials, and objects.

Early efforts at collections care in a general or preventive vein were achieved by the custodial staff of the foundation and often involved techniques that were a bit harsh. An article in a 1950 issue of Woman's Day revealed, “Upholstered furniture is usually wiped with a cloth to protect the beautiful and sometimes fragile fabric from the ravages of dust, and generous supplies of cleaning fluid mixed with mothproofing fluid are used to keep the fabric fresh looking.” Despite more recent improvements in the management and philosophy of maintenance services, custodial-based care cannot provide adequate attention for museum collections on exhibition.

By late 1985, it had become painfully clear that the collections exhibited permanently in the Historic Area were being gradually and consistently damaged by accidental abuse, intense cleaning strategies, and lack of regular inspection. The use of custodial staff in maintaining the collection was re-evaluated, and the foundation decided that more specifically trained, conservation-supervised staff were required to perform the maintenance activities. A committee devised a program to tackle the needs of the collection, and by January 1986 many issues had been discussed and efforts to acquire staff had begun. In the fall of that year, four conservation technician positions were approved, and the Historic Area was divided into four zones based on object density (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. This map of the Historic Area at Colonial Williamsburg shows the zones selected for technician coverage.

The job description for the technicians was developed by the Department of Conservation but was approved by staff in several departments, including the custodial and curatorial departments. As a result, it was flexibly worded and was fairly general in approach. The technicians report to the objects conservator and are responsible for monitoring the collections, dusting the collections, and maintaining liaison with all staff whose jobs require their working in proximity to the collections. Minimum job qualifications were kept low to permit the hiring of people with varied backgrounds. Since the beginning of the program, Colonial Williamsburg has employed 10 people at different times as Historic Area conservation technicians. All 10 have had bachelor's degrees. Six have had graduate-level courses in collection's management and/or conservation. Two have had master's degrees. Their years of museum experience have ranged from eight years of apprentice or private conservation work to no conservation experience at all.

The technician's workday begins at 6 A.M. to allow for work in the buildings before the public is admitted, usually around 9 or 10 A.M. The technicians have approximately three hours each morning to complete duties in their zones. After they have completed their Historic Area duties, each is assigned to one of the Department of Conservation labs, where they work at a number of different tasks until 3 P.M.

The technicians' primary morning activity is dusting the collections. The technicians establish and maintain a schedule that allows them to visit each of their assigned buildings at least once every two weeks and each of their major buildings once each week. Architectural elements and floors are cleaned by the custodial crews assigned to the buildings. The technicians are usually present during the custodial cleaning time slots and, as a result, are acquainted with the crews in their zone and can evaluate the safety of the custodial cleaning practices on a daily basis.

The technicians establish their schedules of dusting according to the need and fragility of each object. They also schedule and complete more specialized cleaning projects as needed. They have instituted group cleaning schedules, for example, so that several or all technicians can work together to complete a complicated or large cleaning project that would be impossible for one technician to complete alone. Dusting and routine cleaning are done using feather dusters, soft brushes of many kinds, washed cotton rags, cotton gloves, and other tools. The workhorse of the dusting efforts is a small portable electric vacuum cleaner that has been modified to reduce suction and fitted with a more softly padded brush attachment.

As cleaning activities are performed, the technicians also examine and note the condition of their objects and the building spaces around them on Daily Building Logs. Notes concern any aspect of the exhibition environment that might have an impact on the condition of an object. Entries might note wax drips from candles, the presence of active corrosion on an object, the movement of an object from its proper location, the fact that an object is accessible to the public, or the evidence of insect activity in an exhibition space.

The conservation technicians often return to the Historic Area in the evenings to monitor an active series of evening programs that take place in the exhibition and craft buildings. These programs involve professional actors, musicians, and dancers and usually require the use of candles and the movement of collection pieces.

The technicians work closely with the interpretive staff assigned to the Historic Area buildings, who may be active craft or trades people or tour leaders. These are the only staff members present at a site throughout the day, including during public hours. As they are the primary observers of the collection the majority of the time, the technicians develop close ties with them and so are able to funnel into the technician program information that might affect the collections.

Similar ties are established with building maintenance and other staff such as plumbers, electricians, painters, building engineers, and landscape staff. Side-by-side with the technician program, the Department of Conservation has implemented a training effort that, to date, has allowed nearly 1,000 members of the Colonial Williamsburg staff to attend a three-hour basic conservation awareness training session that emphasizes an understanding of object deterioration and preventive conservation. Developing close liaison relationships with a staff that has a basic understanding of conservation is a double-barreled approach that has been very successful.

The conservation technicians monitor the environmental conditions in their buildings by recording regular readings with hand-held meters and collecting charts from the recording hygrothermographs in their zones. They monitor trends in the environment and present summaries on their Daily Building Logs and on Environmental Conditions Records. If serious problems are noted, the technician contacts the HVAC engineer assigned to that zone, and together they examine the problem. If a rapid solution to the problem is not possible, the technician notifies staff in the Department of Conservation, and emergency or evasive measures are coordinated.

The Daily Building Logs are completed and submitted to the objects conservator each morning, and individual situations are discussed. If a problem requires action on the part of another staff member at Colonial Williamsburg, the technicians notify the person by phone and send a Notification of Condition form (NOC; fig 2). This form serves as the backbone to the paperwork trail created by the technicians' efforts. An NOC can be sent to anyone, but the forms are primarily used to inform the specialist curators of changes in the condition of objects or of unsatisfactory circumstances in the Historic Area. The form is printed using multiple NCR pages so that the tracking of these notices is streamlined. Each year the technicians send out approximately 200 NOCs.

The compilation of data and notes concerning the well-being of the objects in the Historic Area have indicated several weak areas in collections care that have become separate projects for in-house and contract staff. Included among these are an ongoing evaluation of custodial cleaning products. Each product used by the Custodial Department is evaluated by a staff conservator, and notes are recorded about the potential harm the product might cause to objects if used close to them. Another project involves the development of battery-operated candles for use in the Historic Area so that the damages caused by the use of real candles and their associated fire hazards can be eliminated without compromising the foundation's goals for an authentic 18th-century atmosphere. The technician program has also indicated the need to replace unstable real food stuffs in the Historic Area with treated real foods or accurate fake foods.

After the technicians have completed their morning activities in the Historic Area, reported back to the objects conservator, and pursued any problems that have arisen that morning, they report to the conservation lab to which they have been assigned. In the labs they act as technicians to specialist conservators. They may learn treatment techniques; maintain lab equipment and supplies; write examinations, proposals, or treatment reports; do piecework for other conservators in the lab; photograph objects; or perform any number of other tasks. In general, they have the opportunity to learn lab procedures and techniques. The technicians are assigned to a lab for approximately six months to a year; then they are rotated to another lab to learn about the conservation of different materials. The laboratory work directly reinforces the Historic Area activities and vice versa. The technicians' morning activities also help inform the lab conservators of the potential for damage to objects on exhibit in the Historic Area.

The Historic Area Conservation Technician Monitoring Program at Colonial Williamsburg has been a very successful program of advocacy for the foundation's collections. It has served as an efficient vehicle by which to communicate the conservation goals of the foundation to the staff. It achieves responsible maintenance and monitoring of collections. Although it is an unusual program, it fills an enormous void in collections care that exists in most institutions. Few institutions have an adequate professional laboratory staff to meet the treatment needs of a collection, let alone enough staff to deal with the myriad issues that arise when collections are exhibited.

Fig. 2. The Notification of Condition form is used to document problems and inform staff in the Historic Area.

It seems apparent that if conservators hope to meet the incredible conservation needs of collections, they must seriously address issues in preventive conservation on a larger scale. The need for preventive conservation programs is already widely perceived in the conservation profession. Evidence can be found in the impressive results produced in the last few years by those advocating and developing the parameters of the conservation assessment and other object surveys and in the support provided for these activities by funding agencies like the Institute for Museum Services.

Nothing can or will ever replace the benefits of studied, technical, and aesthetic conservation treatment of an object. The majority of the objects in museum collections, however, will never receive this attention. If conservators cannot at present mitigate all the effects of poor condition in collections, museums must make every effort to prevent continued deterioration through conscientiously applied programs of preventive conservation.


THE CONTENTS of this article were originally presented as a paper in the Objects Group Update Session at the annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation, Cincinnati, May 1989.


JULIE A. REILLY received a B.A. in anthropology from Towson State University and an M.A. in anthropology from the George Washington University where she studied applied sciences and instrumental analysis and completed a series of graduate conservation courses. She completed internships and worked as a contract conservator at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. She worked as an archaeological conservator for the National Park Service and is Objects Conservator for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. She is responsible for the treatment of 17th-20th century decorative arts, folk art, metal and archaeological objects and the administration of the Historic Area Conservation Technician Monitoring Program. Address: Department of Conservation, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, P.O. Box C, Williamsburg, Va. 23187.

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Copyright 1991 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works