Conserving the Past

Hello, my name is Corey Smith and I am the conservator here at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum. We are extremely lucky to have a conservation position at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, because most museums of our size do not have the ability to have this position. Since one of the main goals of our museum is to preserve Seminole Cultural Heritage, conservation is an important component to have at the museum.

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Hello, my name is Corey Smith and I am the conservator here at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.  We are extremely lucky to have a conservation position at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, because most museums of our size do not have the ability to have this position.  Since one of the main goals of our museum is to preserve Seminole Cultural Heritage, conservation is an important component to have at the museum.   
Corey in the Lab
Corey Smith treating one of our historic canoes.

When I speak of conservation, I am referring to art conservation not environmental conservation, which is a very common misunderstanding. Although I do like trees quite a bit and the wildlife out here on the Big Cypress Reservation is incredible (more on this later), my job at the museum involves object and textile conservation.  Conservation, in the most general terms, is the process of stabilizing artifacts through examination, documentation, and treatment of the artifact’s internal conditions (the chemical composition and physical structure) and external conditions (the museum environment and storage conditions). 

Most materials on earth will return to dust at some point.  It is my job as a conservator to slow this process down and preserve the original material of an artifact as it exists today.  Many factors, both natural and those created by humans, can cause an artifact to deteriorate.  Insect damage, pollution, accidents and extremes in light levels, temperature or humidity can accelerate deterioration.  The conservator must recognize these issues and minimize the effects that they have upon the collection within their care. 

The field of conservation is often associated with or confused with the practice of restoration, and I think it is important to point out the differences between the two.  Conservation is the act of preserving and stabilizing the original material of an artifact.  Restoration is the act of adding or subtracting elements of an artifact in order to make it look like it did at an earlier point in time.  The illusion of an earlier time may be enhanced by changing the surface quality of the artifact or adding additional elements to create a “whole” piece of art.  There are times when my conservation treatments involve elements of restoration, but this only occurs after lengths have been taken to stabilize, identify and separate the original components and conservation treatments never involve the destruction of original material.  As we have all learned from the various antique-themed television shows, restoration can commonly devalue an artifact.  Conservation on the other hand does not devalue a piece of art, because it is not damaging any of the original components of the artifact.  Often conservation can enhance the value of the artifact because it adds to the prolonged life of the piece.

I am excited to be able to use this blog to explain conservation treatments that are going on at our museum.  Visitors to the museum can see the conservation lab through the observation hallway on our boardwalk.  Sometimes we feel a bit like animals in a zoo on exhibition, but it is a great opportunity for our visitors to see the museum work that happens behind the scenes.  There is also a small exhibit in the observation hallway featuring tools and equipment that I often use in conservation treatments.  It was in this observation hallway my very first week of work here that I realized that our museum was not going to be like any museum I have worked in before.  As I was sitting at the table in front of the hallway I looked up to see a large bobcat trying to come in through the observation hallway exterior door.  The bobcat had been peacefully walking on the boardwalk through the swamp when the sound of visitors frightened him and he was trying to run away but had come up against the glass door.  As I watched he leaped off of the boardwalk onto an adjacent tree and jumped to the ground.  Since that point I have seen bears, bobcats, snakes, turtles, and other creatures out on the boardwalk.  In fact this morning we created a screen cover to help protect three small eggs of a pond turtle that were buried in front of the curatorial building.  Hopefully in 80 to 150 days they will hatch and we will have baby turtles here at the museum!
Turtle laying eggs
Turtle laying eggs outside of our Curatorial Building

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