Conservation and Restoration


In discussing the appraisal and care of antique furniture, the words conservation and restoration are both frequently heard. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably; at other times some distinctions are implied.  In the following, I offer some basic information gathered from various sources, along with some observations of my own, as an interpretation of how these terms might be used.

Generally speaking, objects conservation refers to the activities of a knowledgeable conservator, who, after examination of an aging or damaged object, will attempt to arrest deterioration, provide stability, possibly address visual/aesthetic concerns, and recommend a strategy for preservation management.  This work will be carried out according to accepted codes and guidelines, such as complete documentation of the work undertaken, a minimal amount of intervention using the least invasive methods, and the use of stable reversible materials that will allow access for future alternative conservation treatments. Other essential requirements are that the conservator will take into account the views of the client, and the cultural heritage of the object.

Regarding the term restoration, if we acknowledge a difference in meaning of the words conservation and restoration, I suggest it might arise from the common understanding of the familiar word “restore”, which according to most dictionary entries is something like “a return of something to an original or unimpaired condition, a former state, a reconstruction”.  With this in mind, restoration might be understood as being similar to the description of conservation above, while allowing for the activities of the conservator to proceed beyond some of the limitations implied above. A decision to pursue restoration, as here defined¹ ,would be the result of careful deliberation, and would be carried out according to the same conservation guidelines mentioned above. Examples of such actions might be the removal of varnish, replacement of missing parts, the in-painting of losses, and other efforts of this nature undertaken with the intention of enhancing the viewer’s aesthetic experience.

Alternatively, it sometimes occurs that a restorer² is presented with an object whose needs are so extensive that the required work might be regarded as more of a re-creation than a restoration.  Examples of this might be an extension table that no longer possesses its leaves, or a gilded mirror frame that has lost its crest ornaments and/or pendant foliage, or a satinwood table that at some point had all of its painted decoration removed. In these types of cases, where there is no original substance to preserve, it might be considered acceptable if the restoration is undertaken using the same methods and materials that would have been used at the time the object was made.  In so doing, the chances of success are probably increased, and with experience and careful research, a very convincing result might be achieved.

Finally, in my own work, I do find it useful to assign separate meanings to these two words, usually in the context of a conversation with a client. For instance, when considering possible courses of action in regards to a particular project, I may find myself using phrases such as “I think we can restore this part here”, or “I think a conservation approach would be more appropriate in this area”. With these simple verbal tools, the exchange of ideas is more effective, contributing to a better understanding of intentions and expectations.

¹ The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art (among others) suggests that “conservation is an all-embracing term that includes the processes of cleaning, stabilization, repair, and restoration”. It may be observed that, in some definitions, the term “interventive conservation” is substituted for “restoration”.

² The Grove Encyclopedia goes on to say that “the English title of restorer is now little used within the museum profession but is widely employed in the antiques and antiquities trade to mean someone who “restores” a painting or an object to make it more functional and/or saleable”.

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