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Conservation for Cultural Heritage Collections: Museums, Libraries and Archives: Research Strategies

Where Do I Start?

Conservation can be defined as "an all-embracing term that includes the processes of cleaning, stabilization, repair and restoration" for man-made objects (The Grove/Oxford Dictionary of Art). Conservation requires technical examination and understanding of the life of the object before any hands-on work can be completed. Technical art history is the study of an object through technical examination. This includes researching and investigating an artist's techniques, tools and materials to best understand the specificity of each component used to create the work.

 Cross section from Robert Dudley portrait

Cross-section of oil paint sample

Research into the field of technical art history and art conservation requires an understanding of these two interrelated fields. This guide offers resources for various levels of users- from the casual student to the experienced conservator. The following research strategies can be employed when conducting research in this field:

  • As you begin your research, keep the following things in mind: types of materials, techniques, and tools used to form the work; time period and geographical location where the object was created; historical and social contexts and events that occurred during the creation process; and the provenance and life of the work since it's creation.
  • If researching a particular artist's work, also check the artist's catalogue raisonne and any exhibition catalogs. In many instances, there is some information about the use of specific artist's materials, working methods, techniques, influences, and creation process, as well as sociocultural contexts that are inherit to an artist's work.
  • Much of the necessary information needed prior to performing any technical analysis or treatment for works of art require cross-disciplinary research. Be sure to check various subject areas for relevant information, such as anthropology, chemistry, history, and sociology resources in addition to fine art and art historical resources.
  • Investigate conference proceedings, collective papers, or congresses from conservation-specific organizations, institutions, museums, and professional associations. Papers, presentations, and articles that are found in these types of publications are not indexed in databases, which makes them more difficult to discover. These types of resources are typically published annually and are a great resources for keeping current on conservation trends, philosophies, and new developments within the field.