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Objects Specialty Group Conservation Wiki
Contributors: Katherine Holbrow.
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Copyright: 2011. The Objects Group Wiki pages are a publication of the Objects Specialty Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
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Organic materials are defined in modern chemistry as carbon-based compounds, originally derived from living organisms but now including lab-synthesized versions as well. Most are combinations of a few of the lightest elements, particularly hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. Organic materials include the wood from which furniture is made, feathers, leather, and synthetic materials such as petroleum-based plastics. In spite of this variety they share some general characteristics. For example, many organic materials undergo fading, yellowing, or embrittlement in response to prolonged exposure to light or other forms of radiation, caused by breakdown of the covalent bonding structure shared by many carbon-containing compounds.
Organic materials are further divided into three categories based on their source. Many conservation decisions are based on understanding the different structures and behaviors of these forms:
Cellulosic Materials. Plant materials are – or were – living matter made of cellulose and lignin. Examples include grass, wood, roots, bark, leaves, even flowers. There are approximately 350,000 species of plants in existence. As of 2004, roughly 288,000 have been identified, including almost 259,000 flowering species. The variety of material that has been used for cultural heritage objects almost matches the number of plants available. Asian lacquer is another organic material, derived from plant sources.
Proteinaceous materials have an animal origin. An astonishing array of animal-based materials have been manipulated by man, for use in tools, decorative objects and fine art. Common categories include Leather and Skin, parchment, gut, hides, fur and hair, wool and silk, feathers and quills, baleen, and tortoiseshell.
Ivory, bone, antler, and shell may also contain protein components.
Organic Polymers are derived from fossil fuels or other oils.
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