Evidence of Use

Lab work requires lab maintenance, and accordingly, this conservator found herself cleaning the sink last Friday.  TSLAC’s lab sink is a three-barreled, stainless steel giant re-purposed from an earlier preservation workflow, and as I had been negligent in cleaning it for some months, the process called for fairly extensive scrubbing.  As I got my workout, I observed how the sink’s dirt deposits indicated its use: how the center sink gets used the most; where the faucet drips; where I wash adhesive and paint from brushes.  It occurred to me that the things we regard as clean have also been rid of any evidence of use.  Clean things give little indication of their own past.


Much of the sink’s evidence of use is presumably now reformatted in this sponge.

Hand tools and lab equipment are equally good at recording their own use.  (For more on this topic, see Jeff Peachey’s blog.)  I found a great example in the lab’s board shear.  This large cutting device was made of cast iron sometime in the 19th century, and was refurbished and repainted before coming to our TSLAC lab.  Nevertheless, note the bumpy texture on its arm as opposed to the smooth texture on its handle.  Now-unknown hands did a lot of work at this machine.


Board shear arm

Board shear arm with bumpy texture.


Board shear handle

Board shear handle with smooth texture. Repeated use changes the physical characteristics of materials, even tough ones like cast iron.

Conservators often consider evidence of use in their treatments, deciding on a case-by-case basis whether wear is more detrimental or informational.  Wear patterns also document our everyday lives – consider, for example, what the bottoms of your shoes say about your posture and gait.  I often imagine an art exhibit comprising the blotters and boards used and reused in conservation treatments.  As these materials document conservators’ repetitive movements over time, they develop organic dirt and wear patterns that make statements similar to the early artwork of Richard Serra or Vito Acconci.  The softer the substance, the more quickly it records wear, creating a kind of internal clock for each material.


Different materials record time differently: already, the sheen on my keyboard’s plastic space bar nearly matches that from the cast iron handle of the board shear (above.)