As defined by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), examination is the investigation of the structure, materials, and condition of cultural property including the identification of the extent and causes of alteration and deterioration.
To elaborate, examination refers to the act of assessing the general condition of an object and accessory parts or a group of objects (commonly referred to as a Condition Survey). This process is carried out mostly through direct visual observation guided by the conservator's expertise and past experiences. Examination is a preliminary step before beginning treatment (refer to AIC's Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice) and always prior to deciding to employ destructive scientific analysis. (n.b. any sampling from original material is only carried out after consulting with the owner and/or curator of the work).
Most often examination is used to inform treatment plans as well as document (in writing and through illustrations and photographs, see "Documentation" in Guidelines for Practice) the condition of the object, identify material composition and construction, and document evidence of use and noticeable modifications to the object's structure (including prior conservation intervention). (Consult "Justification" in the Commentaries on Guidelines to Practice).
Examination most commonly refers to an in-depth report and meticulous visual observations of the object's condition and design. However, there are other modes of auditing cultural property that are more cursory included under Related Terms.
Certain condition issues are predictable based on how different materials degrade or respond to their environment. Therefore, each conservation specialty approaches examination with a slightly different perspective primed by his/her knowledge of the materials. All conservators perform an examination in a systematic manner that addresses each component part and its relationship to the whole. Many conservators have template exam forms that guide their observations (some are reproduced in this entry).
The examination is subjective to a degree as the conservator may choose to classify the object's overall condition as "poor," "fair," "good," or "excellent" based on his/her experiences as well as an assessment of the context from which the object came.
Methods and Equipment
Each specialty group has routine testing that is considered ethical during the preliminary examination (i.e. solubility and absorbency testing for Book and Paper Group), but in general sampling and/or manipulation of original media occurs after completion of a thorough examination and after obtaining relevant authorization from the curator or owner. Observation under different light sources (visible, transmitted, raking, UV, IR) is standard across most specialities. Common tools used by conservators during examination include an optivisor or magnifying lens, stereomicroscope, UV lamp, spatula/swab/soft brush to facilitate handling, DSLR camera, and soft measuring tape.
Inventory--a review of a collection in order to verify catalog records and storage locations of objects. Typically an object is marked as present or not and photo documentation may or may not be performed.
Survey--a type of assessment that includes numerous objects. Due to the quantity of objects in review, the description of each object is often streamlined.
Condition Report--sometimes synonymous with a conservation examination of an object, but also refers to a shorter assessment performed by a museum registrar when an object comes in for accession or on loan. Condition reporting is also used as a means to monitor chronic issues over time for specific objects in a collection.
References and Additional Resources
Demeroukas, Marie. e.d., Basic Condition Reporting: A Handbook. Memphis, TN: Southeastern Registrars Association, 1998.