Guideline 2.3

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Guideline 2.3:
A qualified exhibit conservator is included on the exhibit team to serve as the primary advocate for the objects and to provide conservation expertise.




What is Exhibit Conservation?

Exhibit conservation has developed as a specialized field within the conservation profession. Rather than focusing on the treatment needs of museum collections, an exhibit conservator studies how different display techniques and exhibit environments affect the well being of collections. Through the course of their work, the exhibit conservator also gains firsthand experience of exhibit production. The conservator specializing on exhibits therefore has a unique perspective: they work primarily in the realm of preventive conservation but have practical knowledge of object deterioration and the exhibits process.


Why is it important to include an Exhibit Conservator on the exhibit team?

The exhibit conservator brings the necessary expertise to ensure that conservation will be incorporated most efficiently into the exhibit. The exhibit conservator will guide the exhibit team in evaluating the preservation needs of the exhibit objects and then selecting the set of safeguards that will provide objects with the most effective protection during exhibit. In effect, the exhibit conservator serves as the primary advocate for the objects during the exhibit process.
Specifically, the exhibit conservator will:
• Provide advice on safe treatment and handling of exhibit objects throughout the exhibit process.
• Assess the exhibit objects to determine their particular vulnerabilities and suitability for exhibit.
• Assess the hazards that are present in the exhibit location (such as contaminants or fluctuating humidity) and the potential hazards inherent in the exhibit plan (such as large crowds and long duration of the exhibit).
• Develop the conservation requirements for the objects, by combining the results of the assessments. These requirements describe the conditions that are necessary to safely display the objects given their specific vulnerabilities.
• Work with the exhibit team to arrive at practical and feasible strategies for fulfilling these preservation requirements in the design and fabrication of the exhibit.
The exhibit conservator thus serves as the bridge between the two museum specialties of conservation and exhibition.
To be utilized most effectively, the exhibit conservator should be included early in the development of the exhibit. They should be included in all planning meetings and should be involved in key exhibit decisions.
Although a part-time consultant may be sufficient on smaller exhibit projects, large exhibits should include the exhibit conservator as a permanent exhibit team member.


What is the scope of the Exhibit Conservator’s involvement in the exhibit process?

The following list outlines the areas of expertise and the role of the exhibit conservator throughout the phases of exhibit development and production:
Planning and the Conservator
• Attend all conservation-related planning, design and production meetings
• Review exhibit plans and drawings from a conservation standpoint
• Provide exhibit team members with training in handling and collections care, as needed
• Provide safe handling instructions for exhibit objects
• Conduct a conservation assessment of the proposed exhibition location
• Evaluate and document the condition of objects proposed for exhibition
• Identify objects requiring conservation treatment
• Assess the specific vulnerabilities of exhibit objects
• Establish the conservation requirements for the exhibit objects
• Collaborate with members of the exhibit team—most especially the designer and exhibit coordinator—to draw up effective conservation strategies to ensure that objects’ preservation needs are met and the hazards of the exhibit space are mitigated.


Design and the Conservator

• Provide technical assistance to the designer on conservation issues such as exhibit case design, object-safe construction materials, decorative and finish materials, exhibit lighting, and mounting techniques
• Consult on the selection of environmental controls and monitoring equipment for the exhibit space and for sealed exhibit cases
• Test exhibit designs and features intended to provide conservation functions such as cases with conservation features, restricted lighting etc.


Fabrication and Installation and the Conservator

• Inspect and assess exhibit components during production to ensure that conservation specifications are followed
• Assess exhibit lighting design and advise on suitability of actual radiation output
• Oversee exhibit object mounting, assisting with the design and fabrication of mounts for the most vulnerable items
• Assess completed exhibit work at installation, making final environmental and lighting adjustments
• Advise museum staff on maintenance of the exhibit’s conservation components
• Provide pertinent conservation information in the exhibit Maintenance Manual.


How to identify a qualified Exhibit Conservator

Ideally the candidate will be a preservation specialist with knowledge of material science, environmental control, and the engineering and design issues of exhibit development. The candidate should also be willing to work collaboratively with the exhibit team to create an exhibit that will safeguard exhibit objects.


Look for relevant experience and credentials

• A degree from a conservation program or comparable course work and apprenticeship experience. If the candidate does not have a formal degree, they should have experience working with exhibit specialists to produce preservation-friendly exhibitions.
• Membership in the national professional organization AIC (the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works): associate membership is open to anyone, while professional associate membership may be applied for after five years' experience; fellow is the highest level of membership.
• Experience working with exhibit teams in the planning and developing of exhibitions.
• Job experience beyond formal training. This should include broad experience in preventive conservation, particularly with environmental and lighting issues.
• General knowledge of recent technological advances in exhibit conservation, preventive conservation and environmental control techniques.
• Ability to perform technical inspections of conservation features during production.


Evaluate the conservator candidate’s approach to the exhibit process

• Committed to serving as the liaison between the conservation and exhibit fields, easing collaboration and compromise rather than creating barriers.
• Willing to work cooperatively toward realistic and affordable solutions.
• Helpful to planners in assisting with the selection of objects suitable for the exhibit.
• Willing to collaborate with the designer to arrive at practical solutions for the long-term preservation of collection objects.
• Willing to offer oversight and assistance during installation and the mounting of objects.


How to locate a qualified Exhibit Conservator

Contact the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) at: 1156 15th Street, N.W., Suite 320, Washington, D.C. 20005-1714; Telephone: 202-452-9545; fax: 202-452-9328; Email: [email protected]


• AIC maintains a referral system for member conservators which can be searched online via the The Find A Conservator feature. The system includes the members’ fields of specialization as well as geographic location.


• The AIC website also has Guidelines for Selecting a Conservatorwhich offers general advice and information.


Consult other organizations for referrals, including:
• Other museums, especially those that have opened recent, major exhibits. Although some institutions utilize their own in-house conservation departments, others will work with a contract conservator or a regional conservation center (check with AIC for list of regional centers).
• Exhibit design firms that have used exhibit conservators.


Consult relevant resources, such as:
• Publications and speaker lists from conferences that include museum exhibition as a topic, such as conferences of the American Association of Museums(AAM).
• Professional organizations, such as the National Association for Museum Exhibitions(NAME) and local conservation guilds.