–> Ethical fundamentals of being a conservator

Conservator of Draguignan’s cultural heritage at the LC2R


The conservation of heritage artefacts is a little understood and relatively unknown sphere of activity. In the mind of the general public, conservators appear to be ‘avant-garde DIY handymen’, in reality they are not. There are many security issues concerning the collections entrusted to us, often prestigious, and certainly on occasion coveted. This demands the utmost discretion from the conservators, which can go so far as to affect the abilitynot only to show the objects but also to even talk about them.

The heritage conservators’ primary professional functions are the analysis of the object’s initial state of preservation, and remedial and/or preventive conservation and restoration (through mechanical and chemical treatments). Their activities are different to those of arts and crafts professionals, since the conservator does not create new cultural objects and does not reconstruct objects that no longer exist; they do not repair objects, nor do they renovate the works. The essential role of a conservator is to stabilise and preserve the heritage objects for the benefit of present and future generations.

These interventions on metal objects, for example, allow archaeological and historical information to be revealed, (ornamentation, manufacturing traces, traces of use, organic elements etc.) which have been hitherto concealed by sediment, or corrosion products. The conservators work together with partners from a range of backgrounds, among which are archaeologists, museum curators, fellow conservators, historians, art historians and scientists. This task of conservation is fascinating, complex and challenging. It combines multiple disciplines and requires an analytical mind, the questioning of everyday knowledge and most importantly the ability to adapt. Each object is unique and requires individual diagnosis. The interventions applied to the objects follow a range of protocols, which must be revised and adapted each time, depending on the object’s state of preservation.

While exercising this profession, the conservator is required to observe an ethical code (the professional rules of the ECCO: Confédération Européenne des Organisations de Conservateurs-Restaurateurs), of which the principal objectives are: minimum intervention, legibility, reversibility, compatability and preventive conservation.

With their specialty being in metal and composite materials, they are authorised to work withthe collections of the museums of France. In addition, they also undertake conservation work for archaeologists (excavations, storage of excavated items), museum curators, as well as antique dealers, private clients and collectors.

Their expertise is principally deployed but not confined to the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) and the Languedoc-Roussillon regions, Corsica and the overseas departments and territories of France (DOM-TOM). Their main activity consists of stabilising, cleaning and preserving metal artefacts discovered underground or underwater. Objects treated are made of gold, silver, copper alloy, tin, iron, lead and composite objects (consisting of metal/metal; metal/mineralised leather; metal/mineralised wood; metal/mineralised textiles). The principal objective of the conservators is to discover and reveal all the archaeological and historical information hidden by sediment and products of corrosion.

The techniques used are of a mechanical disposition, chemical and/or electrolysis. Before any intervention occurs, the objects are comprehensively photographed and/or X-rayed to produce a report on the object’s condition, so that the appropriate treatment can be implemented, adapted to the object’s specific state of preservation. Each object is unique and the protocols must be amendedfor each individual object, and never vice versa. There are no general ‘recipes’; the object’s state of conservation dictates the types of treatments that must be applied. If qualitative and quantitative analyses are necessaryduring investigativecleaning, then we rely on our network of scientific partners.

The conservators are an intersection between multiple disciplines;therefore they play an intermediary role between humanities and hard science. Their knowledge of what causes an object’s destruction, what chemical and physical treatments to apply and their capability to identify the materials and the way the object was made, means that they are able to offer a variety of analyses and treatments that they are able to perform.Furthermore, they are able to provide archaeologists and conservators comprehensive adviceon objects that are incomplete, misshapen, broken beyond repair, reformed, recovered or reconstructed.

The objective of the practice is not to make an object operational, or to replace missing parts, or to make it look new. Any distortions and residual vestiges of use are part of the object’s history.Today however, we have new technologies at our disposal, which allow us to offer alternative solutions to our clients, such as scanning, digitisation and 3D virtual reproductions. These tools allow virtual intervention on the objects and this work is possible thanks to the involvement of our partners,which includes for example IT firms, research centres, universities and schools of engineers.

Every aspect of the object is contained in a restoration report.This documentidentifies the object: its inventory number, laboratory number, price quote, origin, dimensions, treatments received, information discovered during the mechanical cleaning process; photos before, during and after restoration; and advice on its museum presentation, handling and storage post-treatment.Restored objects are returned with an accompanying report, as well as all relevant data burned onto a CD.

The interventions undertaken by the conservators are comparable to a scientific investigation whose objective is to discover as much archaeological information as possible (manufacturing traces, vestiges of use, the presence of mineralised composite materials etc.), as well as historical and technical information. The interventions that the laboratory undertakes demand precision, experience, an analytical mind and a good ability to adapt. Working in a team is essential; it promotes the exchangeof ideas and keeps the professionals up-to-date. All of the data is delivered to archaeologists and museum curators, which allows their understanding of the objects to improve, as well as aiding in the presentation.

Apart from these activities, the conservator must work out quotation prices on a daily basis, compile expert reports, and scrutinise objects. Additionally they give advice to archaeologists and curators about preventive conservation, making display stands for the objects and handling the objects.Finally they give advice on lifting techniques when the artefacts are discovered at archaeological excavation sites, as well as how to store them in excavation warehouses etc. The conservators must also organise and participate in colloquiums and business meetings,and write articles. Sometimes they also supervise trainees and deliver lectures at universities. Finally they engage in research programmes both nationally and in Europe.

The conservators, who are specialists in heritage, have a complex task which is responsiblefor preserving an object’s cultural heritage, improving understanding of it and helping to make it presentable to the public for both exhibition and academic purposes.

Translation by Christabel Sakkalli

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