In which we meet our Director of Conservation and take a stab at explaining just what it is she does…and explode the ubiquitous “vats of acid” myth.
The “Conservation” title, of course, is misleading. A good deal of what we all do falls under that convenient “Other Duties as Assigned” portion of the job description. Whoever invented that should have a special place in Heaven along with the angel who invented that highly entertaining “call waiting” music. I came here from 12 years as a conservator, educator, etc. at the Henry Ford Museum, near my hometown of Detroit. I loved my job at theford but felt a need to move to a warmer place. St. Augustine has always been one of my favo
rite cities and I was fortunate enough to land here.
Explaining what I do has always been difficult. Once I was invited to a Career Day at an elementary school. I prepared a talk on museum conservation and packed some visual aids then showed up at the auditorium door ready to rivet my young audience with the glamorous world of museum studies. The teacher showed me to my table, which was inexplicably filled with rows of tiny pine seedlings. The teacher informed me that she had arranged to have the little trees as gifts from me to the children and went on to introduce me as the conservator who was going to tell them all about taking care of the environment. Apparently she hadn’t read the job description I had sent. It is the fate of an Objects Conservator to be frequently misunderstood. We get used to it.

What I do is keep the artifacts in our care safe and stable. I do not restore them, I examine them to determine their condition and then prepare them for exhibit, study or storage. Treatments can range from a simple dusting and slight change in environment to a two-year immersion in sugar solution to stabilize and strengthen them and prevent further deterioration.
What I don’t do is restoration. In my world making an old item look bright and new can constitute fraud and obliterate important information about the artifact’s history.
I’m always happy to answer questions about collections care. If you have an interesting artifact and need to know how to best care for it feel free to use this space as a forum. I may have an answer for you.
I’m happy to help you with condition and storage questions and I love looking at and studying old stuff but I have no idea what these things are worth on the open market. I’m only interested in their historical and educational value. I don’t collect antiques or follow the antiques market. To me these objects are simply interesting stories and problems to solve; I don’t buy, sell or appraise them. The standard answer to the “How much?” question is always “It’s worth whatever someone will give you for it.”
And yes, I do on occasion submerge artifacts in vats of (citric) acid, better known as Vitamin C. It’s for corrosion removal. Our lab is low-impact, using no more toxic chemicals than you’d find in the typical home garage. More on that another time…