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Conservation vs. Restoration

What is the difference between conserving an artifact and restoring it?

Conservation is a more “conservative” approach to stabilizing an artifact. The goal of conservation is never to make something look “new” again. A conservator wants to slow down the process of deterioration as much as possible, while maintaining the original integrity of the artifact. Although the process may include a gentle cleaning, conservation is minimally invasive.

When a conservator works on an artifact, nothing is to be done to it that cannot be undone. For example, if a silk dress is splitting, a conservator will apply a patch to the reverse side of the garment to stabilize the area and prevent it from continuing to shred. The patch will be applied with an adhesive that is not only safe for the artifact, but is also easily removed.

If the dress was being restored, the entire panel would be replaced by a new piece of silk that was dyed to match the rest of the garment. A conservator will do everything possible to preserve the original parts of the artifact, rather than replace them.

A restoration specialist concentrates on returning an artifact to its former glory. After treatment, it will look new, or even better than new. A good example of restoration is what typically takes place in the classic and antique car hobby. The process to restore them is extensive, and not reversible. The original paint is usually removed, and a new coat of paint is applied. Even if the color is the same, it is no longer the original patina.

Parts are often replaced, including upholstery, wheels, and sometimes even the entire body of the car. Restorers prefer to use “new old stock” parts whenever possible, which are parts that were produced at the same time as the car, but were never used. However, modern reproductions are more plentiful. The end result of a full restoration of a vehicle is almost always a combination of old and new, not the preservation of the car in its original state.

Museums are much more likely to conserve an artifact, while individuals usually want something restored. Value is affected by conservation and restoration, but there are many factors to consider, and the results vary widely. What is true for paintings may not be true for antique toys. Each antique market is highly specialized.

Regardless of whether you decide to have an artifact conserved or restored, you should always choose a qualified professional to do the work for you. Never attempt to clean or repair any kind of artifact yourself! The process can be expensive, because it requires specialized training and a great deal of time, but it is always worth it to have the work done right.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
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