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Conservation vs Restoration: the options

Owners or curators of works of art or objects of cultural value that need cleaning or repairing may be confused by the apparently different services on offer. Should they go to a conservator or a restorer, and what do these different professionals do? This information sheet seeks to answer the dilemma and offer reassurance that conservation and restoration are aspects of the same process and frequently go hand in hand. The difference in terminology has to do both with to what degree you wish to recover the original appearance of the object, and what medium the object is made of. The debate over whether to aim for an historically accurate "renewal" of the original appearance and function of an object or intervene only minimally to arrest further deterioration is discussed further on. First, let us look at the confusion that has arisen over the role of conservators as opposed to restorers.

Both conservators and restorers share the following aims:

  • To preserve the integrity of the item, including evidence of its history and manufacture
  • To try to use methods that are reversible and materials can be removed without damage to the item itself
  • To record all stages of their work

The more specific goals of conservation are to:

  • Establish the causes of deterioration
  • Arrest deterioration
  • Prevent further deterioration
  • Reveal what has become hidden and, by investigation, lead to a fuller appreciation of the item

Restoration goes further. On the whole it is used to mean restoring something back to how we think it looked at some earlier time. Knowing how this was, at any particular moment in its history, can of course be difficult. While reviving the bright colours of a painting through cleaning may help us to increase our appreciation and enjoyment, there is no guarantee that what we see are indeed the tones that the artist painted because pigments alter with time.

Some examples of how the terms restorer and conservator are used for different media

In the case of paintings, both conservation and restoration are often carried out on the same item by the same person. The professional, traditionally called a restorer, will

  • Inspect the painting very carefully, possibly using a microscope, and perhaps more sophisticated methods, like X-radiography. This inspection will show how the picture was painted, what changes the artist may have made, what previous restorers have done, and what is wrong with it now. (It might be dirty, its varnish may have darkened, it may be cracking, its canvas might be distorting, and so on.)
  • If necessary, improve the physical support of the painted surface and consolidate the areas of flaking or cracking paint with a harmless, stable and safely removable substance.
  • Undertake cleaning, depending on what the client agrees is safe to do without damaging the artist's original work and intentions.
  • If there are visible losses to the picture, "restore" those areas so as to provide visual continuity, but in such a way that future experts will be able to see what has been done (e.g. by using different materials which will show up under ultra-violet light or by employing a visibly different and therefore distinctive brushstroke). The aim is to present as complete an image as possible, striking a compromise between the normal effects of ageing and the viewer's preference to see as little obvious damage as possible.

In the case of ceramics the professional may be called a conservator or restorer. Ceramics are usually valued for their perfect surfaces and blemish free glaze. Restoration is undertaken when the ceramic is broken or when missing parts make it unattractive. Also when it is cracked, disfigured due to dirt and staining or when old repairs are breaking down.

The extent of the restoration is dependent upon the owner's requirements. For physical safety, it may simply need cleaning and bonding with a stable but reversible adhesive. However a skilled ceramics conservator has the ability to restore an item to a virtually perfect appearance. Not only can all the tiniest fragments be reassembled, but also cracks can be made to disappear, missing parts replaced and lost areas of glaze and decoration totally and accurately restored.

Is it right to go that far, or should the conservator take pains to ensure a distinction between the old and the new, sufficient for an expert to discern the repair? Or would it suffice to know that the different materials used would be revealed by inspection under an ultra violet lamp?

In practice, from a conservation point of view, it is important that the treatment does not cause further damage and that all restorations are reversible. All replacements should be accurate and as little as possible of the glazed surface should be obscured by retouching. When the concern of the owner is that the object is restored to its original beauty and that the restoration is not obvious, these demands need not be incompatible with the ethics of conservation.

One solution might be to restore a plate perfectly on its upper surface while not covering over the cracks on the reverse. In another case, coloured resin fills can replace missing chips and lost areas of glaze but require no retouching onto the original.

In the case of furniture restoration is a necessary part of conservation. Imagine a period chair, broken and missing a leg. A pure conservation approach would be to do no more than repair the broken parts (after inspection, and using reversible materials and documenting everything). But then what? The chair will still have only three sound legs! Each time it falls it will suffer more damage. This is contrary to the purpose of conservation, which is "to prevent further deterioration". The common-sense option is to provide a substitute leg, i.e. to restore the leg; and what more appropriate than to restore it to match the other three? There is nothing wrong with this, provided that the new leg remains discernible as a replacement by somebody who knows about chairs, that the replacement is documented and that deception is not intended.

The solution is usually less obvious than in the over-simple example given above. Nevertheless, in every case we need to know with absolute certainty what the missing part looked like. This means that the furniture restorer should select replacement materials very carefully, to ensure that they are discernible now and in the future. The aim is always to replace as little as possible of the original material.

The example of the chair illustrates another purpose of restoration: that it may be necessary to make something function. A chair cannot be sat upon unless it is structurally sound; a clock cannot show the time unless it is in working order; a steam engine cannot haul a train and evoke past times unless it is fully restored; and a rocking-horse cannot be ridden unless it is structurally safe.

Finding a compromise between an object's integrity and ability to function

When restoration is necessary how far should it go? This is where views differ, where the debate becomes heated, and simple answers are elusive. Restoration gained a bad reputation in the past from the over zealous cleaning, renewal or reconstruction of buildings and paintings. People now realise how much was lost and sometimes react strongly against any replacement or renewal.

A museum curator may want to display a rare and early rocking-horse, perhaps one having historical connotations, exactly as it is today, with its paintwork faded or chipped and its mane hairless. In contrast, a private owner may wish to present a similar piece to a child and will want its paint gleaming, with a fresh mane, leatherwork, and fittings - indeed will want it to look "as new". The creature may become only a semblance of its original self, with much of the original completely destroyed by the very process of restoration. The cost might be as great as buying new.

People often like metal objects to look bright and shiny. They may be unaware that in polishing the surface layers they may remove important details indicating use, maker or manufacture, or even decorative or historical features, or that the patina may be original and applied by the maker. In the past metal was not always expected to have a shine.

The current trend is for owner to like their art to look "clean". Hence a stained and yellowed master drawing on paper may have to be bleached and washed using chemicals which may shorten its life. Is this a price worth paying?

With working objects, like clocks, steam engines or fairground organs, running wears them out, requires new parts, and puts them at increased risk, as when cars are driven and aircraft flown. As parts are replaced, the artefact loses its original identity and eventually becomes a mere replica. One solution might be to build and operate a replica while doing the minimum needed to stabilise the original and then keeping it unused in ideal conditions. Another solution might be to restore the item to working order but to keep the original parts in store.

The dilemma when conserving musical instruments is no less painful. To put an early instrument into playable condition invariably requires replacement of its original parts and for that reason there are very few unaltered early instruments extant. Playing the instrument then imposes stresses and risks, but consigning it to a showcase and creating a replica for use is only a visual solution: the original sound can only be made by the original unaltered instrument.

Inappropriate restoration may adversely affect an object's long-term preservation. Repairing a damaged textile by re-embroidering, or renewing missing or worn areas may do more harm than good. This can be avoided in a museum where the item is needed only for display in controlled conditions, but may be necessary in the home, for instance on a damaged chair cover.

In a church the visitor (congregation) will want their wall paintings, furnishings and other objects to remain usable and a visible contribution to the building and religious experience. This is a requirement that demands sensitive compromises.

The basic precepts that restorers and conservators share

Accepting that restoration is often a necessary part of conservation we need some underlying principles. These are:

  • The original object is of paramount importance
  • What has happened to it in the past may be historically important
  • Do not destroy or hide evidence of original construction or composition, modifications or use (If this has to happen, the evidence should be properly recorded.)
  • Always do the least possible
  • Any changes to the item should be discernible in the future

The past history of an object may be revealed through a complex series of alterations, each of which leaves physical signs, which can all too easily be destroyed.

The principle of not destroying or hiding evidence is especially relevant where restoration is needed to disguise damage (e.g. covering over cracks), the more cautious conservation approach being only to minimise the effect of the damage.

These principles allow for the possibility of change in artistic appreciation and fashion, and improvements in the technologies for preservation. In the art and antiques trade, whereas full replacement or reconstruction was once essential to maximise the monetary value of an item, less drastic approaches are becoming usual. Indeed, with some types of art object, buyers may actually prefer to see the condition and extent of the original. Faded colours, blemishes and flaws are often acceptable and welcome evidence of antiquity.

The trend now is to do less to artefacts to avoid drastic treatments, and to stress prevention rather than cure. The inevitable process of decay can be dramatically slowed not only by the conservator's intervention but also by reducing light levels and by controlling humidity and temperature. This is as true for objects held by private individuals as for those in public care. Taking care in this way in the long run saves expenditure on putting right later damage. It also makes the best of a costly treatment that can never make the object completely immune to damage from its surroundings. Conservators and restorers take such factors into account when inspecting or working on objects and will advise on appropriate preventive measures.

The responsibilities of conservators and restorers

Putting all these principles together and making a judgement is not at all easy. That is why the skills of a qualified, trained and experienced conservator or restorer are essential. Only such a person is able to make these judgements, taking into account the wishes and expertise of the curator or owner, who may not be immediately aware of all the issues and will need advice on the options available. Decisions may be required not just at the outset of the project, but frequently during the course of the work, as details are revealed and recorded and have to be instantly conserved and perhaps restored. The range of technical, aesthetic, and art-historical knowledge demanded for such judgements can be immense.

The people who conserve and restore are as diverse as the settings in which they work. Those who work in museums and galleries are usually required to take a cautious approach. They are expected to place greater emphasis on retaining what is original, on minimal replacement, and on doing no more than is required for display or long-term preservation. Ideally, the object will be replaced in an environment where it will be protected from rough treatment and its condition will be carefully monitored. Those who operate privately, whether for museums or private individuals, share the same professional and cautious approach as those working in museums.

But a conservator can normally offer a range of options between replacement and reinstatement, taking note of the wishes of their client, of the future home of the object, and of its future use. They may also need to take into account the implications and cost of their work in relation to the object's monetary value.

Conservators and restorers who belong to a relevant professional organisation agree to abide by a code of practice, which embodies the principles listed above. They are expected to operate in an ethical and businesslike manner.

One professional standard applies throughout, but the nature of the object and of its context is taken fully into account when applying that standard.

The client's role

It is up to the client to:

  • Choose a conservator or restorer whose approach is compatible with the needs of the client and whose experience includes similar objects or projects
  • Discuss carefully what is to be done with the conservator or restorer, noting his or her advice, so as to arrive at an agreed brief
  • Come to a clear understanding with the conservator or restorer about the extent of restoration to be carried out, whether restrained repair and preservation or more extensive gap-filling, in-painting and reconstruction.
  • Be available to be consulted by the conservator during the course of the work.

The curator's first responsibility is to the care of the object in his or her care because it will, in the course of time, be handed on to succeeding generations. They will not want too many options to have been closed by over-zealous and ill-advised restorations.

High quality conservation or restoration is the result of an effective partnership between client and professional. A professional approach will ensure that matters of terminology take second place to the primary purpose of doing the best for the artefact for the pleasure and enlightenment of present and future generations.

This document is an attempt at the impossible; to capture ideas which are not universally shared and which change with passing fashion. The underlying debate will never be resolved, but it is hoped that this brief essay at least brings some of the issues to the fore and thereby makes a contribution to the better care of our cultural heritage.

The Conservation Register

The United Kingdom Institute for Conservation (UKIC), together with the Historic Scotland's Conservation Bureau maintain a national register of conservation practices (Tel: 020 7721 8246 or 0131 668 8668) or by consulting the website at

This text is adapted from the leaflet "Conservation-Restoration: The Options" originally published jointly by The Conservation Unit of the Museums & Galleries Commission, London and the Scottish Conservation Bureau, Historic Scotland, Edinburgh, 1993. A revised version was included in "Working with Independent Conservators" published by the Museums and Galleries Commission in 2000.

Copies of this fact sheet can be provided in alternative formats. Please contact Viola Lewis, Information Officer at MLA for further information.



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