The Life of Objects: Documentation

by Daniéle Knoetze and Nancy Child

This is the first post of a four-part series. This series is to give a behind the scenes look at the UCT Library’s (UCT_L) Conservation Unit manned by Nancy Child, Senior Conservator and myself, Daniéle Knoetze, Junior Conservator.

Why do conservators focus so much on documentation? The simple answer is objects have a life of their own, carrying with them a history of our past. The documentation of the materials, tools, and techniques conservators use tells a lot about a society. Any conservation done on an object might change this information and without documentation, information from our past is lost. Documentation aims to protect the object’s integrity and therefore our history. Full documentation of an object includes a condition report. Objects within a collection usually have their condition routinely assessed and this tracks the ‘health’ of the object over time. A treatment report is included in the full documentation if intervention is required. This report shows the before and after of each treatment carried out on the object.

Condition Reports

These reports describe the state of the object. The condition of the object is the first statement. This is an assessment of what the conservator observes. Also, the report includes detailed observations that identify the object and indicate how the object was made. Factors that might have contributed or caused the deterioration of the object are also noted.

The condition report starts with a condition assessment made by the conservator, indicating a level of preservation. The standard terminology of the possible states of preservation are: good, fair, poor, unstable. The terminology might be different in different organizations, but the basic idea is to identify the condition of the object.

The UCT-L conservation unit has designated 3 categories to indicate the condition of an object. Category 1 indicates good or fair condition, Category 2 indicates poor condition, and finally Category 3 indicates unstable condition. How we decide on the category is outlined in the diagram below. In this diagram you can see that we follow a flow chart, asking questions that lead us to a consistent application of this method to ensure consistent assessments. Each category is designated in such a way that everyone in the department can understand the difference between the levels of deterioration. Meaning you do not have to be a conservator to understand this diagram and how the condition was assessed.

Example of a Category 2 Condition Architectural Drawing

The paper of this Category 2 object in Fig 1, is commonly used for architectural plans or maps. It is called tracing or transparent paper and has a smooth, thin, and transparent character. The manufacturing process involves the pulp being heavily beaten and as a result it has short fibers that give it its unique characteristics. However, this means the tracing paper reacts instantaneously to water.

This is a challenge for conservators when it comes to flattening this type of paper. This treatment usually involves moisture to relax the paper. By seeing that the object is designated as category 2 and a specialized paper noted in the documentation the conservator knows to be aware of all the possible problems that could occur during treatment.

Example of a Category 3 Condition Poster

The category 3 object as seen in Fig 3, is brittle, has large tears, areas of loss, creases, and folds. It also has numerous areas of previous repair with tape, aka pressure sensitive tape. The impact of the pressure sensitive tape is extensive. It causes discoloration, embrittlement and often the adhesive migrates into the paper itself, spreading to other areas and causing more damage. Because tape and paper have different structures, these two materials react differently to changes of temperature and humidity. This in effect causes distortion around the area of the tape, making the object susceptible to more damages.  

So, the solution seems simple, remove the tape. However, this is more challenging than it may appear. This takes time and patience as the paper material is extremely brittle and unstable as indicated by its condition. The conservator again is alerted to the care that is required when treating this object because of the assessment of its condition within the documentation.

The condition report, indicating the category of preservation is an essential part of the conservation process. Through proper documentation, decision making, recording of treatments done, and future storage recommendations an object’s care can be tailored. By having the documentation follow the object throughout its ‘lifespan’ its needs can be met today and for generations to come.

Apart from the practical point of view, documentation also takes on an ethical role. Whether you are working in the public or private sector, no conservator is exempt. Following ethical guidelines and maintaining the standard and integrity of an object is the responsibility to all conservators. Good documentation tells the story of the object and provides information for not just future conservators, but also researchers, archivists, librarians, and the greater public.