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1 December 2023

Values judgement and decision making in conservation: Caring for working objects.

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In this blog post we hope to delve a little deeper into conservation as a profession by providing an insight into why we do what we do?

Traditionally, conservation practices focused on preserving the materiality of heritage objects by intervening both physically and passively to prevent the deterioration of materials and preserve an object for future generations. The materials, their properties and appearance were a key focus of treatment, and conservators were largely considered as objective characters in the role of treatment.

Today, this approach has shifted. Objects are considered as more than just material things, they are embedded with values and meaning which vary from person to person and influence why something is significant to us, or not. As conservators, we have a responsibility to understand an object in its totality before intervening. We understand that the decisions we make, that determine our actions, have an active role in shaping the future of an object – and potentially the way history is understood. The values of each object therefore require assessment within the specific context including discussions with stakeholders, and our treatment decisions should be scrutinised accordingly.

One interesting area in which to explore this concept is the conservation and care of working vehicles. A ‘working object’ or ‘object in use’, is an item that continues its working life, in some capacity, whilst also being considered as heritage. Working objects can vary from small items such as watches or clocks that retain their mechanical function, to larger items such as heritage railways that may travel a particular route once in a while. Working objects also include items that have a modified use to what was originally intended, such as handling collections in museums that now function primarily for education and outreach purposes (by definition, we could argue that all objects are working objects and that items on more ‘static’ display serve the role of educator or informer).

At the LCC we are fortunate to work with a wide range of leather and skin-based items which return to a variety of different contexts – some from traditional heritage settings such as museums or historic houses, and others to private homes or garages, and these contexts have a significant impact on the course of our treatment. The conservation of leather upholstery in vintage vehicles is a perfect example to use here to illustrate this.

Over the years the conservation of car upholstery has become a bit of a specialism for the LCC, so we often have leather car interiors (or entire cars) come into the studio.  As with all projects, we start by discussing the object (in this case the car) with the client to understand its story – i.e. how the item has been used and stored in the past, how the client intends to use it in the future, and importantly, what is it about the particular item that makes it special. Vehicles in a museum for instance may have been collected as examples of a particular engineering feat, an iconic design, or particular event. Private vehicles on the other hand may hold sentimental value due to fond memories, or have rarity value which the client appreciates from a collector’s perspective – these are only a few ‘typical’ examples, there are many more values associated to vehicles that may need to be considered.

In these two hypothetical settings – public and private – the techniques and materials we adopt for conservation will likely differ and depend on how the vehicle will be used in the future.

With a museum vehicle that is to go on static display or into storage, emphasis may be on preserving as much of the original material as possible, meaning a minimal amount of new material would be introduced and only where necessary to prevent or slow down further deterioration. We would ensure that any new material was compatible with the original, is clearly documented as being non-original and where possible, can be easily removed or re-treated in the future and have good aging properties. Areas of damage that compliment and illustrate the vehicle’s story may be retained and preserved – for instance scratches and bumps that speak to the vehicle’s past use, signs of wear such as colour fading that evidence heavy use of a particular seat, or previous repairs carried out by former owners that strengthen the ties between object and person, would all be retained.

For vehicles in private settings that will go back into use (as a means of transport), emphasis would likely be very different; the treatment would need to fulfil a different set of requirements and honour a different set of values. For instance, we might introduce more new materials and even remove original material where this is highly deteriorated to ensure that the vehicle can withstand the intended future use. Requirements of the new materials would be strength, longevity of repairs and possibly visual appearance, which may take precedence over using materials that are archival, age well and can be easily removed in the future.

Another alternative might be a vehicle in a museum setting that is used occasionally as a means of transport, for instance to commemorate a specific event. The requirements of treatment here would be different again, likely preserving as much of the original material and evidence of use as possible, but intervening more heavily where needed to ensure the vehicle could be occasionally used safely without causing further damage. This would again require weighing up a different set of values.

The role of the conservator then is to identify and assess these values at the beginning of any project, and factor them into the treatment plan. A result of this is that there is no one ‘standard’ approach to the treatment of leather and no two treatments are ever exactly the same. We therefore need a wide range of skills and materials within our arsenal to be able to apply the most suitable techniques in all situations.

The Leather Conservation Centre
Grosvenor Chambers
Grosvenor Centre
Union Street

01604 719766