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Conservation at the Museum

What is it?

Preventive conservation is a program to prolong or extend the existence of objects by taking actions to lessen deterioration and damage. The emphasis is on prevention, that is, trying to prevent or slow that which causes deterioration and damage. Preventive conservation requires that we identify and evaluate current risks to specimens and collections, AND we must develop strategies to manage the risks. It's a type of risk management.

To identify and evaluate risks we must consider:

  • the initial preparation of the specimen from a sample;  
  • the materials that comprise the specimen and its collection or exhibit environment;  
  • appropriate physical support and handling of specimens; and
  • long-term protection from light radiation, inappropriate temperatures and relative humidity, physical forces, water, fire, pests, pollutants, theft, vandalism, and neglect.

Who does it?

Everyone associated with the specimens and the space they are used in. That means:

  • staff directly associated with each collection--the curator, the collection managers, collection assistants
  • volunteers
  • library staff
  • education department staff
  • exhibits staff
  • conservators
  • even administrators (who provide the financial resources to make it all happen!)

Where do we do it?

Everywhere in the museum.

Obviously preventive conservation techniques are more critical in areas where the specimens are stored, exhibited, and used for programs and research. However, actions in one part of the building can affect another. For example, we have to be aware of how food is handled everywhere in the museum—food invites pests which love to eat specimens! So we are careful with the food used at receptions, not just during the reception but with careful housekeeping afterwards. And we ask staff to keep lunches and snacks in refrigerators or sealed containers—even the small packets of ketchup are attractive to some pests!

And it's a balancing act! We acquire the specimens to use them. But the way we use them sometimes causes them to deteriorate and be damaged. On the other hand, some of the conservation techniques might keep us from using the specimens as we originally intended.

So we have to evaluate the risks and make decisions.