Friday, September 12, 2008

About Paper Conservation

Paper is often considered ephemeral yet much important and precious information is written, drawn, printed or painted on paper. Museums, galleries, libraries and archives all contain historical and contemporary paper objects that are being preserved for future generations. Even in this digital age there is still a tendency to print a hard copy on paper whether it is a document, picture or photograph as there is always the possibility that the digital information could become corrupted or lost.

Paper is a very delicate material and extremely vulnerable to damage and deterioration. Damage and deterioration take two forms, physical and chemical. Physical deterioration is generally due to handling and storage and takes the form of surface dirt, tears, abrasion, folding and distortions such as cockling and bowing. Chemical deterioration is sometimes due to the intrinsic nature of paper in that components of the paper such as woodpulp or impurities can lead to the formation of acids which lead to discolouration and break down of the paper. More often storage materials and the environment (light, temperature, relative humidity) the object is stored/displayed in lead to chemical deterioration such as acid formation, discolouration and foxing.

In most cases objects display more than one type of deterioration and identifying the factors influencing the deterioration is not always straightforward. Paper Conservators are trained to identify deterioration in objects and identify anything that may cause deterioration in an object such as framing materials. They can also treat the deterioration and thus improve the condition of the object.

Conservation is often associated with restoration and while there is a restoration element to conservation they are different. Restoration is concerned with improving the appearance of the object and tends to sacrifice the age of the object often restoring the object to a level where it looks brand new. Conservation is concerned with improving the overall condition of the object, primarily concentrating on halting deterioration, stabilizing the object and providing archival quality housing or storage. Improving the appearance of the object is often linked to the object's function. Works of art on paper have an aesthetic function and if the deterioration of the object has lead to the obstruction of the image a conservator will restore the object to a level where it is again aesthetically pleasing but not to a level where it looks brand new. Often this means that the paper will maintain the creamy colour gained with age rather than being bleached to a clean brand new white.

Much of humanity's social, cultural and political knowledge is found on paper and given the vulnerability of paper to deterioration it is vital that it is preserved and conserved.