State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 45 Autumn 1990


Appendix 2: Guidelines for Commissioning Conservation Treatment for Cultural Objects

The preservation of objects of historical, artistic or other value is a highly technical task based on knowledge of the structure and chemistry of the materials involved and an understanding of the nature and significance of each object. Conservation treatment of such objects should therefore be carried out by or with the advice of a qualified conservator.
Although there are a number of commercial conservators in Australia, it may not be easy for potential clients to locate a suitable one and to negotiate the work to be undertaken. This leaflet has been prepared by the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material to offer some guidance. The Institute would welcome comments and suggestions from clients.

Availability of Conservators

There are commercial conservators in most state capitals and some country areas, but they do not necessarily provide a complete coverage of types of objects and/or materials in each centre. Some conservators work individually and some in groups of varying sizes.
A list of local commercial conservators is available from each of the State divisions of the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material. Major custodial institutions such as museums, art galleries, libraries and archives, should also be able to provide information on commercial conservators in their area. It must be understood, however, that neither the AICCM nor the institutions can recommend or accept responsibility for the work of an individual commercial conservator.

Qualifications and Specialisations

Increasingly, conservators have a formal qualification such as the Bachelors or Masters degree from the course in Conservation of Cultural Materials offered by the Canberra College of Advanced Education, or from overseas institutions. Many conservators have, however, developed their expertise on the basis of an apprenticeship training. Good practical experience and a sound knowledge of the structure and chemistry of materials are essential for any practising conservator.
Most conservators have an understanding of the fundamentals of conservation treatment of any object, but tend to specialise in one type of object or material. Examples of specialisations are easel paintings, paper works of art, documents, ceramics, photographs, ethnographic objects, metal objects, textiles and furniture. Selection of a conservator for a particular job should therefore be based on an assessment of both the skills and specialisation needed, and clients should feel free to consult conservators or other clients who have used their services about these.

Conservation Ethics

Commercial conservators who are members of the AICCM are expected to subscribe to the Code of Ethics and Guidance for Conservation Practice which was adopted by the ICCM (now the AICCM) in 1986. This document sets out principles of ethical behaviour for all those involved in the conservation of cultural materials and outlines the general obligations of the conservator, relationships with the owner and with other members of the profession, and practice as regards examination, treatment and preventative conservation of objects. It is obtainable from the AICCM, Inc., GPO Box 1638, Canberra, ACT, 2600.

Identification and Assessment of Objects

Owners may wish to have an object accurately identified and/or valued before deciding on the type and level of conservation treatment to be applied. Several of the major museums and galleries provide an identification and advisory service at specified times or may be able to refer owners to commercial valuers.
In some cases, owners may wish to have a report on the condition of the item and an assessment of the cost of conservation before deciding whether to have treatment carried out. Commercial conservators would be willing to supply such a report and would usually make a charge depending on the time involved.

Aim of Conservation

The chief aim of conservation treatment is to bring the object into a condition in which it will be preserved and can safely be used for as long as it is needed. The type of use envisaged will vary for different objects and may include exhibition or actual handing. It is a fundamental principle of conservation that the object should be affected as little as possible by any treatment applied to it, and that the work done be detectable, and if possible reversible.
High standards of work should be applied to all objects. More than one conservation option may be suitable, however, and the choice of option will be affected by the value of the item and the way in which it is to be used. This choice rests with the client, aided by the technical advice of the conservator.
Correct storage of the object, as distinct from treatment, is of great importance for its preservation and may in some cases be the only action needed.
Potential clients should understand that it is pointless having an object conserved if it is to be returned to the conditions which caused its deterioration in the first place.


Conservation work is both skilled and labour intensive and is therefore not cheap.
Clients should receive a firm written quotation for work on each object, based on a report on the condition of the object and the recommended treatment, an estimate of time and materials needed, insurance if required and other costs, including transport, if appropriate. They should discuss costs, methods and materials with the conservator in order to satisfy themselves that the work proposed is appropriate for the object. It may be desirable to obtain more than one treatment recommendation and quote.

Conservation Treatment

In accepting the location where treatment will be carried out, clients should be satisfied as to security precautions, including fire protection.
Treatment carried out should be consistent with that originally specified, and any significant variations should be approved by the client.
A clear and unambiguous record of materials and procedures used, including, where appropriate, photographic documentation of the condition of the object before and after treatment, should be supplied to the client on completion of the work. This information may be important in relation to the care of the object, particularly if further treatment is required in the future.
(Reprinted with the permission of Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material).