Conservation As A Learning Process
Overcoming technical challenges in conservation repairs requires the adaptation of known processes or the development of new processes. Applying the same treatment to every object is not the best approach. A learn-as-you-go approach is much more effective and often means the evolution of treatments from what was thought to be an acceptable approach into one that is more sophisticated, simpler, even cheaper--but always better for the object being treated.
The process begins with examination and documentation of the object. It is essential to understand the object's origin, its creator's intent, and its transformation through deterioration, repair, and alteration by identifying each of these steps. If the object was damaged, when was it damaged? If there have been repairs, what new problems have these created? A thorough understanding of the design and construction is crucial so that repairs do not compromise the original effort. There are inherent faults in all work, so knowing and understanding the successes and failures of the original structure are important in developing a treatment method. Also remember that repairs are often only cosmetic, masking the underlying problem and contributing to new modes of failure. It is important to decide whether or not later repairs will be kept or removed and replaced with something else. All of these considerations must be made when examining an object.
Documentation of an object is crucial throughout the examination process and the rest of the project, as measurements and data included in a sketch are often resources used over and over on a project. Drawing by hand is a crucial element of documenting the object. Photographs provide some understanding, but many more important aspects come to light when a sketch is made. For example, if you look at the intersection of three pieces of wood and some masonry, and then measure it and try to draw an exploded view on your own, you may learn that your previous assumptions were incorrect. In drawing, you look at the object more closely, discovering the important nuances, and begin to think of what it needs and how it can be repaired.
The next step is careful disassembly. Deterioration is easy to spot, but often disassembly uncovers more levels of deterioration below. If the growing complexity of problems becomes overwhelming, slowing down and carefully examining everything can be helpful. Documentation is key during disassembly as well. While finished surfaces are easily recognizable, disassembly reveals irregular internal bits and pieces. Without good documentation, fitting the pieces together again may be difficult.
After careful examination, documentation, and disassembly, design of a conservation approach can begin. Try to determine the best approach for stabilization and repair, considering the object’s function: will the object be in a museum, or is it a set of stairs that must be used every day? Conservation is an invasive process, so less is generally more. The more we intervene and change an object, the more harm we do to it. To determine the appropriate level of intervention in each case, weigh the merits of different ways of physical stabilization and repair. Producing a diagram, such as a pencil and paper word/picture collage, is helpful when imagining treatments for a certain area. These crude, quick pictures often generate new ideas, details, and notes, as well as more questions about the object’s construction. Re-examining the object while reviewing notes is useful here.
It is during this thought stage that the learn-as-you-go approach kicks in. Presumably each project you have completed has taught you new things, so each project often generates new repair ideas. It is essential to perform “50 cent tests” as dry runs to determine if the plan, such as a delivery system for resins, will work. You must also determine whether a repair method that takes place in stages will be compatible all the way through. For example, are the surface repair, consolidation, and protective finishes compatible with one another in the order you’ve planned? Never go full-scale with a plan until bugs have been worked out. Your understanding will constantly evolve through these small tests until the most workable solution is devised.
Finally, you can begin looking seriously at treatment. After small-scale treatments are made to further tweak the process, repairs can be fully carried out—carefully, as new insights often continue to change the way the processes is approached. And while there are compelling issues like time and cost to consider, it is important to always do what is best for the object. Realize that while work up to this point may have led you to one conclusion, it is not too late to change if a better plan becomes clear.
Many contractors avoid conservation work altogether precisely because it is so difficult to estimate costs, while others charge exorbitant prices to protect themselves. Underbidding leads to rushing the later stages of repair to cut losses, while significantly overbidding suggests an unwillingness to better understand the building’s problem before a final scope of work is set. Both are unethical and bad for the building.
Naturally clients want a fair estimate for the cost of work, but they should also understand that, unlike new building construction or repair work to modern structures, conservation projects can have many and varied hidden problems. Clients must be informed of conditions that require a change in scope and cost. Because the interests of the building should be the main focus of repairs, changing scope may mean changing schedule to accommodate a new budget. Sometimes the scope of work must be revised to fit the available funds. While deterioration may be more severe than previously thought and require a second phase when the funds are raised, sometimes the actual condition is better than originally anticipated, which frees up time and money for other parts of the project. Most clients are relieved to be frankly consulted about their building, and are willing to find the money for a longer-term repair plan if they feel the contractor or conservator has the building’s best interest at heart.
Treatments usually evolve from an initial idea to a more sophisticated and effective approach. Often the revised approach is not only easier and less expensive than the original plan, but more importantly, better for the object, which should always be the main concern.