Documentation – why is it so important to conservators?20 January 2023
I know, I know, I know, paperwork, we’ve all done it at some point, we’ve all been drilled on the importance of paperwork. But in this blog post I am going to focus on why documentation for a conservator and the items they are working on are vital. While each and every organisation might have differences on how they collate their documents, I will be talking about my experience of paperwork in conservation and why I think it is important.
My experience with documentation
So, you’re in the labs and you’ve just received a new item for conservation, what paperwork comes first? This is the entry form, it is filled in by both the organisation that owns the item and the organisation it has come to for conservation. This form includes details like; the name of the object, a brief description of the object, and what the end goal after conservation is. This paperwork is a very useful starting point, it gives you an indication of what you may be doing with the item in front of you, and on some entry forms, roughly how long you have to complete all the treatments necessary.
The next step would be to complete a condition assessment of the item, detailed description of the current condition of the item. Are there any cracks? Any changes to the colour of the item, eg staining, yellowing. Is the item in one piece, are pieces missing, are there gaps or holes? This is also the point at which before photos would be taken of the item. By doing each of these steps it gives a good descriptor of what the item was like before any treatments have happened. This document can also be used by future conservators working on the item to assess any changes in the items overall appearance and stability.
While treatments are ongoing it is important to note down the exact treatment, what equipment is being used along with the materials being used and roughly how long each of these treatments has taken. All of this information is important for a number of reasons which will be addressed later in this blog.
- How materials age and change naturally,
- Being able to prioritise items for conservation,
- Application of funding by showing the number f hours it take to conserve an item,
- Sharing of information between conservators,
- Consistency of treatments for particular items/item groups.
Once treatments have been completed, the next stage would be to take photos. These photos also important for the record of the item, they will show how addition materials have aged, how the original item has aged, it is also possible to highlight any fills on these photos for future reference. They helps to see the impact of the conservation treatments on the item itself.
The final document for an item, is the exit form. Once again this is filled out by both the conservation organisation and the organisation that owns the item. This makes sure that the item is recorded as being returned and therefore back to being in the responsibility of the original organisation.
That’s all well and good knowing what documentation I have used, but the main reason for this blog post…
Why is documentation important?
There are many independent conservation charity boards that have provided guidelines for use within conservation. Many, if not all of these have provided some specific guidelines on types and importance of documentation in conservation, for example the one from ICON. Below is a summary of these reasons.
- A clear summary of the treatments and materials used during conservation,
- Visual and written description of how materials have naturally aged,
- Sharing of ideas between conservators, this leads to consistency within the sector,
- Consistency of treatments for particular items/item groups,
- Assessing the long-term aging of the materials used,
- Records of significance, condition, and the value of items; both information and monetary,
- To be able to budget and prioritise resources,
- Helps to determine items that need more immediate conservation,
- Applications for funding,
- Proposals for loans of items from other museums.
What could happen if documents are not filled in?
Well, a lot could happen, and as is expected none of it is good. There could very well be a loss of information about the items background and context, this would then lead to a loss of understanding of the item. If entry and exit forms are not filled out this could potentially lead to a loss or misplacement of the item itself. Unfortunately, this has been known to happen in the past, as this blog post alludes to, documentation can and does decrease the number of missing/lost items.
Long story short, documentation is really important for conservators as items can and do tend to deteriorate over time and these records will help future conservators understand the changes in the items. Many museums and heritage organisations have large stores, therefore it is vital they know what is it in their stores and the conditions of these items without having to go and physically find the item each time, so much time can be saved by having up to date and accurate digital or hard copies of these documents.
While we don’t always love completing and filling out paper work, I hope this goes some way to explain why it really is so important in the heritage sector, especially conservation.
Want to know more?
If you would like to read about the National Museum of Wales and how they implemented documentation between archaeology and conservation this paper by Professor Jane Henderson and Diane Gwilt is a very informative read.
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