JAIC 1994, Volume 33, Number 2, Article 9 (pp. 185 to 191)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1994, Volume 33, Number 2, Article 9 (pp. 185 to 191)



ABSTRACT—The author discusses criteria used, although not often made explicit, for the treatment of collections exhibited in art museums: an intensive treatment model, most common in paintings collections, and a collections management model, more common in larger collections of objects with lower individual values. Neither model is entirely appropriate for collections shown in period settings. Historic structures and period settings expose collections to more hazards while providing much less physical protection; therefore, treatments should be maximally protective. The aesthetic goals in these settings may not be as clear as those in art museums, because objects are presented as though in use. They are neither totally neglected nor cleaned up to look as much as possible as they did when they were made. The creation of historic settings that are as accurate as possible while respecting the actual state of each object in the setting involves conflicting interests and is inevitably complex. The issues involved require substantive discussions among all parties.


Discussing special criteria for treatment of collections in historic structures implies that we all know the criteria that guide treatment of collections in art museums. It has only gradually become clear to what extent our ideas about conservation are based on the fine arts model. Therefore, it is necessary to formulate what seem to be the present criteria for treatment of collections housed in art museums before contrasting them with the criteria for collections in historic buildings.

The traditional job of conservators has been the complete labor-intensive treatment of one object at a time, with the dual goals of prolonging useful life and making the object look as good as possible. This model arose largely from the management of collections of paintings, which have relatively high individual monetary values and a relatively small total number of pieces. In addition, the typical aging properties of paintings—which combine such disparate materials as drying oil films, natural resin varnishes, animal glue, and linen canvases—have made major treatments of paintings a virtual necessity. Of course, few paintings of any age have survived without major treatment of one kind or another, and attempting to return paintings as much as possible to their condition when they were created may necessitate the removal of later additions. Improved environmental control in museums in some cases provides the same protection that certain kinds of treatments do, so that the first goal of treatment—prolongation of the physical life of the painting—can sometimes be fulfilled with somewhat less drastic or intrusive treatments if the paintings are to stay in well-controlled environments.

The second goal of treatment in art museums—making works of art look as good as possible—is still vital. Although conservators may differ about the most desirable treatment methods, art museums do not in any way question the assumption that a treatment should make the piece look beautiful—within, of course, the parameters of accuracy and honesty. Since the likelihood is relatively high that any painting in a collection will at some time be on public display, complete and up-to-date treatments of virtually all the paintings is seen as favorable.

Many museums' definitions of “art” have broadened to include ethnographic materials and furniture and other decorative objects. Curators and scholars interested in these materials, which traditionally have not been considered fine art, have been flattered to see these collections being honored. The art museum approach to conservation, therefore, has become particularly appealing. With objects looking so beautiful, it may be difficult to remember that the “masterpiece” approach stresses certain qualities of the objects over others. It removes the items from their cultural context and ignores function and history. Nevertheless, the approach has without a doubt been successful in enhancing the public's (as well as scholars') appreciation for an ever-broadening class of cultural artifacts. It is important to remember that carrying out major treatment on pieces that once might not have seemed worth the time and effort has produced some opportunities for conservators.

In protest against this star power mind-set, and perhaps in the service of multiculturalism and democratization of the museum, many art museums, encouraged by the progressive policies of federal granting agencies, have changed to a collections management mode. The fact that many major museums have had professional conservators carrying out expert treatments on the stars of their collections for several decades may make this change in emphasis relatively painless.

Many collections are made up of large numbers of items, each with relatively small monetary value, whose value to the institution and to society rests in the aggregate. Conservators have increasingly taken on collections management projects, including rehousing, containerization, and environmental control. Economic problems and rising real estate values may force institutions to make maximum use of their stored collections in order to justify the cost of high-quality storage space. Changes in the magnitude of museum acquisitions, rising art prices, and the extinction of the traditional societies and craft traditions that produced much of the world's art have all contributed to museums' renewed attention to assuring maximum usefulness and life span for their stored collections.

Conservators in the art museum world, then, seem to apply two different models to collections management: They either treat each object so that it looks and behaves its best, or they provide storage to protect whole collections while treating only those items that are in physical danger.


Neither of these strategies of the art museum world can be applied directly to historic house museums. The meaning of an individual object in a historic house museum typically depends neither on its individual aesthetic qualities nor its association with a large group of similar items useful for study. Its meaning rests instead on its placement in a particular room along with other kinds of objects. Virtually all its meaning may derive from the identity of the person who owned it, sat in it, or wore it, while much less importance typically is attached to the identity of the person who made it, a primary concern in art museums.

What do these philosophical notions have to do with conservation treatments? First, I believe we must re-examine the idea of making every object on exhibition look its best. Is it appropriate to restore paintings that will hang in a historic setting to the condition that we in 1994 like to see in an art museum exhibition gallery? Suppose, for example, a historic house contained paintings that had been bought through Lord Duveen, a turn-of-the-century dealer to the rich and famous who was notoriously intrusive in his preference for restoration, and those restorations were inappropriate to modern taste? Are the restorations part of the historical setting and therefore to be kept, or are they distractions from the value of the art and from our ability to see the hand of the artist?

A similar concern about the desired appearance of ethnographic objects casts some light on this issue. Ethnographic objects are, of course, not really particular kinds of objects, although we tend to use the term for what we used to call primitive art. The idea of ethnography relates to the goals of the collector or the institution holding such objects. If the purpose of the object in its setting is to shed light on the culture that made it or the people who used it, then it is an ethnographic object. The distinction is perhaps best illustrated by the period in the object's life in which we are most interested. If we wish to see the piece as it came from the creator's hands, it becomes a work of art; if we are more interested in how it looked when it was being used, then it is by definition an ethnographic object. Paintings hung in multiple rows to duplicate the appearance of a 19th-century picture gallery would become ethnographic objects and should most accurately be displayed with the “golden glow” of discolored varnish, which we understand to have been preferred at the time, and with all fig leaves, draped textiles, and potted palms intact. In other words, objects in a period setting may best be thought of as ethnographic objects: we wish to know primarily how they were used and what they looked like while they were in use.

Since the collection of a historic house museum is a group of movable objects and architectural elements made of a wide variety of materials, decisions that relate to the extent and desired result of treatment are complex. If we assume that a collection should reach a consistent level of treatment, then how do we deal with a room with three old faded samplers and a quilt, reproduction wallpaper and drapery, a tarnished brass candlestick, newly painted woodwork, two water-stained prints, and newly refinished old furniture? If the prints are washed and the brass is polished, does the quilt look shoddy by comparison? If the reproduction drapery is considered to be the best way to create the “look” of the original room, how about using a reproduction sampler or a modern copy of the quilt? There is clearly no single satisfactory answer for these questions, but it seems clear that they require a thoughtful and creative approach to questions of the desired appearance of pieces treated for a historic house interior. Among other issues is the question of the degree to which exhibition of reproductions compromises the visitor experience.

The best answer to these questions may lie in the interpretation of the rooms to visitors. Conservators and interpreters may need to work together to develop educational materials. The professionals in cultural institutions presumably understand the aesthetic and historic background of their collections, but visitors are in most cases unaware of it. More description of the presentation process would undoubtedly enrich the visitor experience, and conservators have a great deal to offer in this area.

On aesthetic grounds alone, the treatment of any object to be displayed in a historic house setting needs careful consideration. Such an object cannot necessarily be treated the same way it would be treated if it were to go on exhibition in a museum gallery. For example, several years ago my firm carried out a conservation assessment in a 1920s house that belonged to avid art collectors. The interiors had been assembled from various European bits—painted Venetian ceilings, stone rondels, Oriental wallpaper, friezes, and so on—and colors had been chosen for the rooms based on the colors of these decorative elements when they were collected rather than when they were created. Although the painted friezes were covered with discolored varnish, we recommended against cleaning them because of the potential of shifting the color balance of the rooms. Even this decision was, of course, a compromise, because the present color of the coatings is undoubtedly darker than it was when the pieces were collected.

There are no simple rules that can be followed. When conservators undertake the treatment of pieces to be exhibited as part of a historic interior, they and the custodians of the objects need to discuss with open minds questions that under other circumstances would never be asked. How much improvement in the appearance of the object is desirable? The treatment of objects so that they look better, but not too much better, can be technically quite difficult. Can a piece of furniture with a badly deteriorated surface be refinished, for example, to a point where it still looks used? Leaving objects unrestored is no solution. Things that look terribly neglected are no more accurate a reflection of their period than those that look brand new.


The exhibition of collections in historic houses rather than in art museums also affects the structural component of conservation treatments, that is, activities designed to strengthen objects and prolong their lives. The trend in museum conservation has been toward less intensive individual treatment. This trend relates directly to increased emphasis on environmental control. If museum galleries can be maintained at stable relative humidities year-round, then canvas paintings, panel paintings, bronzes, and other materials susceptible to damage or deterioration from unstable or inappropriate relative humidity levels can be maintained with less intrusive treatment than would be needed in less desirable environments, particularly if a conservator is available to check on condition periodically and carry out minor treatments when necessary.


Even though improved environments are increasingly emphasized in historic house museums, many unalterable facts will make it impossible to provide ideal RH levels in these settings. In art museums without gallery-wide RH controls, RH-sensitive objects can be displayed in tightly sealed cases or frames that either actively or passively control RH changes. In period settings, neither approach is likely to be appropriate. Unstable ambient relative humidities may be an understatement, since, aside from seasonal and diurnal variations, the buffering capacity of the house as a container may be compromised by open doors and windows. Gusts of outdoor air blow into houses every time the door opens. Although temperature levels in museums may not be ideal, they are usually quite steady. Many historic houses are unheated during the winter; heating may be turned on for a few days several times during the season, creating RH changes of a magnitude that would almost never occur in a museum.

It should be unnecessary to mention the role of light in deterioration and the difficulty of controlling natural light from windows and skylights to standards accepted in museums. For all the discussion of ultraviolet filters, visible filtration, window treatments, and plantings to bring light levels down, few historic houses are likely to have the lighting controls commonplace in art museums.


Light and relative humidity may be the most significant hazards in museums, but environmental protection of collections in historic houses may involve other hazards, including visitors touching objects or brushing against them. Routine cleaning and maintenance procedures also create problems. Several years ago, we performed a survey in a historic house museum where many of the small objects sitting on furniture had chips around the bottoms. The staff told us that the furniture was dusted every day and that each object was picked up during this process. We suggested that dusting be reduced to once per week. Frequent vacuuming or sweeping has similar and all-too-familiar effects on the aprons and legs of furniture. Objects in a historic house may in fact be subjected to routines closer to those of a well-run household than of a museum, with frequent vacuuming, dusting, and polishing of metals and furniture finishes. This work needs to be supervised closely to strike the optimal balance between neglect and overhandling. Conservators need to be aware that any measures that reduce the need for housekeeping will protect collections while also saving staff time and expense.


The wearing of original period costumes has become less frequent in historic houses, but it is not uncommon for original fireplaces to be used for cooking demonstrations. Even if original furniture is not used for its original purposes, floors, doors, and windows have functions that continue. Other hazards that are common in historic houses, such as the influx of flies and bees, are problems unknown in most art museums.


Collections in historic house museums need maximal protection from all environmental hazards, including temperature and RH, pollution, handling, vibration, light, and theft. Exhibition cases protect objects from gaseous and particulate pollution, theft, vandalism, ultraviolet light, and water leaks, as well as from fluctuations in relative humidity and flying insects. But they are inappropriate in historic houses, so it is necessary to incorporate as many of these functions as possible into conservation treatments. Clearly, treatments of collections housed in historic structures need to incorporate more protective techniques than treatments of collections housed in museum galleries. Some methods that may be considered unnecessary and therefore undesirable in a museum context will provide substantial protection for certain kinds of objects from certain hazards, but there are no methods for all materials or all sources of deterioration. Once the need for such methods becomes clear, it may be possible to devise additional protective techniques by adapting known materials and using them in novel ways. But some questions—such as the protective value and durability (as opposed to the chemical stability) of coatings—have been investigated only marginally in the past.

How different materials can be protected remains a difficult question. For paintings, wax-resin linings have been shown to be a reliable alternative to environmental controls and have the same positive effect on long-term aging as containerization. Younger conservators trained in major museums may have little experience in this technique and may never have seen paintings that have suffered from long periods of poor environments, but the evidence from research is unequivocal, and those conservators who have watched the behavior of wax-lined paintings over many years or decades will no doubt agree on their stability.

Wax linings can protect against damage from changes in relative humidity and from air pollution but not against light damage or heat damage from direct sunlight. Although conservators would always prefer that all ultraviolet and excessive visible light be kept out of interiors, we know that this ideal cannot be achieved. If there were a harmless way to provide ultraviolet protection by incorporating filtering materials in varnishes, for example, paintings on long-term exhibition certainly would benefit, as would furniture.

Other techniques are known to protect objects from pollution-promoted corrosion or from dust accumulation when the objects cannot be kept in exhibition cases. Benzotriazole, which prevents corrosion of copper, might be applied to bronzes in historic house museums. Conservator-applied spray coatings are probably indicated for polished silver and brass as well as for iron and other metals, although other measures for silver, such as frequent wiping or covering with Pacific Silvercloth, may be appropriate in some settings. The framing of textiles and works on paper should be carried out with the maximum possible seals and buffering materials inside and with UV-filtering Plexiglas. Plasters should be coated and painted, if this practice is acceptable, to prevent dirt from penetrating the pores and to aid in surface cleaning. Although stone sculpture is not usually coated, coatings might be considered for the same reasons. Wax coatings should probably not be used because of the difficulty of removing dust from the sticky surface, although the use of wax on furniture may have fewer undesirable effects than some other common coatings. Many customary household maintenance procedures, such as applying linseed oil polishes to furniture, putting saddle soap and leather dressings on leather, or bleaching linens, should be studiously avoided with historic materials. It may take a conservator's intervention to assure that this kind of traditional maintenance is not practiced.

Although furniture is a major component of historic interiors and its quality and importance in these settings may be proportionally greater than those of any other material, it is a relatively small part of museum exhibitions. Therefore, the field is perhaps less developed, and novel techniques or materials in furniture conservation are difficult to institute. The field of furniture conservation, once the realm of talented craftspeople who treated furniture for use by employing traditional techniques and materials, has become a real branch of conservation in which conservators adopt modern materials like Velcro and Acryloid B-72 to produce results suitable for exhibition in art museums. However, the number of people experienced in these new techniques is quite small compared to the number who treat paintings or other kinds of objects, and the range of treatment methods in use may still be quite narrow. Few techniques have been developed for protecting furniture from environmental fluctuations in nonmuseum settings although I understand that filling case furniture with large volumes of buffers has proved helpful.

Furniture conservators and others involved in preventive conservation matters should investigate the broadest possible range of ideas in order to find solutions. For example, if part of the problem with warping lies in the fact that exterior surfaces of case furniture are finished while interior surfaces are not, would the behavior of wood in an uncontrolled environment improve if the interior surfaces were coated as well? Are there coatings, or materials that could be incorporated in coatings, that would protect wood surfaces from light damage or from scuffing? Are there insect repellents that could be incorporated in coatings for the wood parts of upholstered furniture? These approaches may or may not yield usable results, but they and undoubtedly many other unorthodox ideas merit some investigation.

An entirely different tactic is the possibility of physical barriers. For example, the sides of furniture that face windows, such as the backs of upholstered chairs, could be draped with light-barrier cloth or ragboard invisible to the viewer. This approach, which has been tried in a few institutions, should be published where custodians of historic houses will read it. A conservator who treats collections for use in historic interiors needs to question not only the aesthetic goals of treatment but the ultimate location of the object and its environment: relative humidity, temperature, dust levels, gaseous pollution, insect incidence, access for handling, dust removal, and many more issues.


There has been a great deal of discussion in the conservation field for several years on the philosophy of “less is more,” implying that “invasive” treatments are undesirable. In settings where collections need protection, less is not more. My firm carried out a conservation assessment a few years ago in a historic house that had a painting on canvas, measuring about 30 40 in, hanging in the vestibule. The painting had recently been treated, and the conservator had felt that a lining was not warranted. Unfortunately, the setting had not been taken into account; the painting was hung next to the front door of the house, and the canvas flapped on the stretcher every time the door opened. In this case, less was definitely not more, and the painting undoubtedly will suffer from enhancement of stretcher creases, cracking, and accelerated aging of the linen.

The way we were all taught conservation grew out of the imperatives of the art museum. Working on historic house collections requires many changes in treatment technique and a willingness to examine and question our assumptions. The decisions that need to be made, however, require more than technical expertise. They require a close collaboration with interpreters, historians, curators, and others to sort out the complex issues that go along with the medium.


BARBARA APPELBAUM has been a partner in Appelbaum and Himmelstein since 1972, specializing in the treatment of ethnographic objects and textiles and in conservation assessments and collections surveys. She is the author of Guide to Environmental Protection of Collections (1991) and has been a member of the Editorial Board of Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts since 1988. She also served as adjunct assistant professor at New York University for 14 years. She has served the AIC as treasurer and vice-president (1976–81), as chair of the Committee on Accreditation and Certification (1982–86), and presently as content coordinator of the Publications Task Force. Address: Appelbaum and Himmelstein, 444 Central Park West, New York, N.Y. 10025.

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Copyright 1994 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works