Connecting to Collections Care Online Community

Original State versus Preservation

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    • #134187
      Keila Rone

      Hello, I am a graduate student in George Washington University’s Museum Studies program.

      I recently came across an interesting collection item that is going to be used for an upcoming exhibition. It is a shirt that was worn in the desert by an illegal immigrant and left at a drop site. The shirt is covered with dirt, sweat, and even pieces of grass or hay. Since the shirt is being used to tell the story of immigration, the decision was made to keep the shirt pretty much as is and to only do minor conservation work to stabilize the piece. I thought this was a cool idea, but I was wondering what other conservators might have done with the shirt and how they may reach their decision. In my mind, I see a scale with a ratio between story and conservation on which a piece like this is placed. If you want to preserve the story, you have to give up some of the conservation and vise versa. How do you decide where on this scale to place objects?

    • #134191
      Tammy Zavinski

      Hi Keila,

      I’m glad you are finding the Connecting to Collections Online Community helpful.

      There is a book I would like to recommend to you that addresses the types of concerns you have about decision-making in the practice of conservation.

      Caple, Chris. (2000). Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method and Decision Making. Routledge: NY.

      Amazon provides a peek at the table of contents here:

      Also, referring to Commentary 18-Interpretation of AIC’s Guidelines for Best Practice, the shirt’s use (sweat, dirt), and that it was found at a drop site substantiates the statement that it was indeed worn by an illegal immigrant, even though it seems there is nothing to prove that it was. Another consideration, would the shirt be worthy of exhibiting at all if it didn’t show that wear?

      These issues are all interesting to think about.

      Best to you Keila,

      Tammy Z.

    • #134192
      Jeannie Whited

      I don’t see it as compromising on conservation at all. It’s just a different way of seeing the object. Are you trying to conserve a shirt, or what is significant about that particular shirt? If what you want is the shirt as a representation of what the immigrant wore, by all means, remove the soiling. If you want the story of the person who wore it, then you keep the soiling. In this case, it’s not the fibers or the construction that’s important, it’s the use and conditions it saw. So the dirt and grass as as much a part of the object as the shirt – without them, there is no need to conserve (or display) the shirt.

    • #134196
      Quinn Morgan Ferris

      Hi Keila,

      In addition to the great suggestions for resources above, I would highly recommend an article titled “Matter out of Place: Paradigms for Analyzing Textile Cleaning” by Brooks and Eastop (published in JAIC in 2006). It exceeds the file size for upload, but if you email me [] I can send it to you. I think it directly pertains to your particular situation. It is also (last I checked) required reading for conservation students–certainly in the NYU program, possibly also in the others.

      I mention that only to illustrate the fact that in the early stages of conservation education, students are asked to thoroughly consider and discuss the idea of “soiling/dirt” in order to investigate the gray area between the story an object tells through its original state and the object’s long-term preservation. Apart from being a good thought exercise, it also mirrors the kind of complex decision-making that conservators are called on to use all the time.

      Hope it helps!

    • #134197
      Quinn Morgan Ferris

      The Brooks and Eastop article also appears to be available on Jstor:

    • #134199
      Rachel Lapkin

      Hi Keila,

      The decision making process should always involve the full spectrum of staff that are connected to the collection item, so the conservator will never make a decision in a vacuum. It is always important for the conservator to give a clear picture of any proposed treatment and outcomes of that treatment, and recommendations for an exhibition environment to curators and collections managers, exhibit designers, etc. This is a necessary discussion and there will almost always be compromises from someone’s point of view, depending on how the staff-in-place and hierarchy determine the outcome.

      It is also necessary to keep detailed documentation about decisions in the treatment file so that years after staff members cycle out, the institutional memory can be passed along to those trying to figure out why certain actions were and were not taken.


    • #134203
      Keila Rone

      Hello, Everyone.

      Thank you for your replies! I look forward to reading the suggested articles.



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