Treatment and Documentation at the AIC Annual Meeting

TSLAC Conservation recently attended the 45th annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC.)  The meeting’s theme, “Treatment 2017: Innovation in Conservation and Collection Care,” was embodied in several sub-themes, including a focus on conservation documentation.  Though documentation may not be the exciting part of treatment, it is an ethical necessity to record how physical intervention may change the nature of a historical artifact to prolong its life.

In her talk, “That Poor Cousin of Treatment: Documentation and Possibilities for Simple Innovation,” Cybele Tom of the Art Institute of Chicago presented a case study in thorough documentation as multiple conservators treated one object over many years.  She found that documentation of past treatment greatly influences current treatment decisions, and she considered detailed documentation as a “love letter to a future conservator.”  For highest accuracy, documentation might include both quantitative, objective measurements and qualitative, journal-style musings on decision making. However, these idealized practices require judicious application.  In a higher-volume, collections-based workflow like TSLAC’s, a different approach is needed.

More representative of TSLAC’s workflow was the talk “Medium Rare: An Innovative Treatment Approach to the Space between Special and General Collections.”  Quinn Ferris of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign discussed issues familiar to many conservators who work with materials that fall somewhere between general collections and special collections.  Documentation presents a special challenge for these materials: it should be careful and methodical, while still promoting quick turnaround.

TSLAC’s solution is to create written documentation for all items using a check-box-based database, which provides a searchable, controlled vocabulary.  Additional descriptive fields allow customization and qualitative musings like those advocated by Ms. Tom.  We pursue photographic documentation only for treatments that are especially invasive or that involve items that are especially unique.  As seen at the AIC meeting, balanced solutions like ours are pursued in other, similar collections.

Conservation Treatment Documentation Databases

Treatment documentation is a major part of conservation.  According to the Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice of the American Institute for Conservation:

“The conservation professional has an obligation to produce and maintain accurate, complete, and permanent records of examination, sampling, scientific investigation, and treatment. When appropriate, the records should be both written and pictorial.”

In 2010 and 2011, TSLAC worked with software developer Terence Bandoian to build a custom database application to streamline the collection and preservation of written and photographic treatment documentation information.  This system is among a variety of current documentation database projects within the conservation field.  While some of these projects occur at the institutional level, others represent multi-institutional and for-profit work.

At the 41st annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation in Indianapolis, IN, conservator Sarah Norris moderated a panel discussion on these documentation databases.  Speakers at this lively and well-attended session included Sarah from TSLAC; Linda Hohneke from the Folger Shakespeare Library; Jay Hoffman from Gallery Systems, Inc; and Mervin Richard from the National Gallery of Art, representing the Mellon Foundation-funded ConservationSpace project.  To learn more about the session and the meeting, please visit AIC’s blog, Conservators Converse.