To Further Complicate the Matter

In many respects the “conservation ideal” is contained in the Code of Ethics for the American Institute for Conservation, an organization formed to promote the knowledge and practices of the profession. Quoting from the code:

“Conservation of historic and artistic works is a pursuit requiring extensive training and special aptitudes. It places in the hands of the conservator cultural holdings which are of great value and historical significance. To be worthy of this special trust requires a high sense of moral responsibility. Whether in private practice or on the staff of an institution or regional center, the conservator has obligations not only to the historic and artistic works with which he is entrusted, but also to their owners or custodians, to his colleagues and trainees, to his profession, to the public and to posterity.” 

Perhaps the most important aspect of these conservation principles is an intense respect for the integrity of the object, which influences all activities of a conservator, from recommendations for use or exhibition to proposed treatments. The original and historic character and components of a wooden object must be preserved whenever possible. In this context it is important to distinguish between original appearance and original components, which many times exhibit the effects of age and use. Returning a piece to original appearance could result in destruction of important information about the materials and techniques used by the maker, in addition to obliterating cultural information about how the piece was used. For example, sanding the wood before applying a replacement finish (assuming that the finish itself was not historically important or could not be preserved) destroys the historic character and appearance of the wood surface, obliterates evidence of original production techniques and tool marks, and reduces the original thickness. Therefore it should be avoided whenever possible.

To further complicate the matter, it should be noted that the original appearance is not necessarily the most important one. Alterations, either intentional or accidental, made to furniture may be important from an historic or cultural perspective. A sword slash on a table inflicted by a military figure, wear on a chair rung from generations of supported feet, or alterations to a piece by the original maker a number of years after its manufacture tell an important story about the piece. 

– Donald C. Williams, excerpt from “A Furniture Conservation Primer” in The First Three Issues


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