A Question of Ethics A Question of Ethics
28 November 2022

A Question of Ethics

Written by: Sara Thornburg

Conservators are often asked to perform treatments on objects that are badly deteriorated or damaged. Afterall, if an object is in good condition there’s not a good argument to be made for an expensive and invasive interventive treatment. Some damage on objects are a part of its lived history. Damage from use or other human interaction from its life before becoming a museum object can help tell a more informed story around how it was used and roles it may have played in day to day life.

When an object with this kind of damage comes across a conservator’s bench, there is a question of how far a treatment should go to stabilize the existing damage and prevent tears or wear from worsening over time. These questions are discussed with museum curators, private owners, and, increasingly, the communities or artist that made the object, to determine what course of action is appropriate for a given treatment.

This means this kind of damage is evaluated on a case by case basis. With the conservator needing to assess what each approach would mean for the stability of the object in question. Sometimes structural damage caused by an historic event (certain tears in a military uniform, dents or scratches in metal or wooden artifacts) needs to be stabilized while maintaining their visibility. Other types of damage such as wear spots are indicative of everyday use and would be maintained to keep the object’s historic context.

Some damage tells the story of an object but detracts from what the curator or owner would like to tell. For example, souvenir hunters of the nineteenth century would cut away pieces of objects or locations to keep as mementos of particular events or places they’d visited. Some to such an extent as to permanently and drastically disfigure the originating object. The question with this is whether to compensate for this extreme visual loss: make one source of damage less visible to highlight other historic damage or to present a more visually comprehensible object. The souvenir hunters’ damage is still very much a part of the object’s history, but may be too distracting for visitors to then see the full picture of the object’s story.

Each new treatment must be approached with an open mind and adequate research done to ensure each object maintains its history. Even in cases where damage has been repaired or lessened, a full record of damage is taken both photographically and through written notation in treatment reports. Any repair or new material is highlighted for future conservators and museum workers to be fully aware of where previous treatments end and original material begins.

Agency: National Park Service


Location: Harpers Ferry Center for Media Services

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