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Question: How do conservators deal with rust?
Answer: When iron develops a bright orange rust, it means the metal is actively deteriorating, usually from direct water contact or high moisture levels in the air. This is treated in the lab by “passivation,” or the conversion of active rust to stable iron by using tannic acid.
Question: How do historic houses preserve things like wallpaper on the walls?
Answer: At Historic New England, our conservators often find that 150-year-old wallpaper in good condition, but the 150-year-old paste is not. In this case, the wallpaper can be delicately removed as a whole sheet. Conservators work in teams to strengthen the old paper with a thin layer of strong new Japanese tissue on the back. Then the wallpaper can be re-hung using archival adhesive such as wheat starch paste.
Question: How are display mounts made for things like shoes or hats?
Answer: Conservators design a variety of custom made soft forms to help shape and support objects while on display. We use inert, archival materials such as polyethylene foam, polyester batting, and undyed cotton that are carefully shaped to not stress the object.
Question: Why does gilding fall off of things like mirrors and frames?
Answer: Gilding is often applied to wood that is carved into complicated, rounded shapes. When the wood expands and contracts, the gilding layers can’t keep up, and fracture over time. Conservators preserve fractured gilding by using traditional adhesives such as animal glue to ensure no more gilding falls off. Then, areas of loss are filled, toned, and gilded, sometimes with new real gold.
Question: How do you know what materials an object is made of?
Answer: Conservators always start work on an object by looking very closely, since a gold-colored object might not be real gold, or a wooly pillow might not be real wool at all. One valuable tool to look very closely is a microscope, which is used extensively to identify textile fibers whether they are from a sheep, a goat, a plant, or synthetic plastics. Knowing what an object is made of is key to understanding signs of damage and long-term preservation.