The conservation department is responsible for the care, research and treatment of works of art housed in the museum. Established in the early 1960s, the conservator’s role was then limited to the physical treatment of works in the collection. Our modern-day conservators have a far wider range of responsibilities, including systematic examination, technical research and conservation treatments. The materials and techniques used in the making of an object, a painting, or textile have changed over the centuries –often drastically. Modern and contemporary artworks present complex physical and ethical challenges, increasing the subset of specializations within the field.
Conservators work in close collaboration with curators and scientists to make well-informed decisions about the treatment process for each object. Each treatment is far different from the last; physical challenges in preservation and restoration range from removing surface grime to the treatment of organic materials like chocolate sculptures, grease as a binder or animal carcasses suspended in formaldehyde. Additional responsibilities of the conservation department include public outreach, preventive conservation and environmental monitoring. The Conservation Department collaborates with the registrar on storage, pest management, safe display and standards for traveling works of art.
The term ‘technical art history’ was coined to reflect the joint work of conservators and art historians to investigate the physical structure of an object or painting using various methodologies, such as radiography and infrared reflectography, in order to learn more about individual works. Exhibitions now often include information about the artists’ techniques and materials, elucidating the artist’s working methods and enabling the visitor to gain insight into the process of the physical creation of works of art. For more information conservation processes and standards, visit the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC).