“Conservation always!” I seem to hear an early Professor shout over my shoulder, “Restoration comes after.” They are both aspects of my work and usually overlap.
Conservation deals with the stability of the object as it is; it takes care of the damaged and/or aged object in order to preserve its safe handling or intrinsic value. It doesn’t “hide” the cracks on the side of a Roman flagon, neither it encompasses filling small losses to leaves and flowers of a Meissen figure-group, for example.
It includes surface cleaning and consolidation of cracks where unstable. Reassembling of shards can be done but breaks and small losses will remain visible. Fills can be made in weak areas where added support is imperative to safe handling in a museum or collection context. These fills were historically left bare—you can still see archaeological museum objects with white fills, which are a little disruptive visually; presently they are coloured in a middle tone that does not disturb the appreciation of the whole.
Images: To the left, a white fill on a roman flagon; to the right, a roman beaker with a toned fill.
On the other hand, Restoration will most likely rebuild, remodel, and “make pretty”. As professionals, we are bound to codes of ethic and conduct (simply as a Doctor is), and these orientate the choice of materials and techniques to be used as well as the extension of ones work.
When rebuilding missing sections I will copy a similar area on the object or follow a historic reference (fingers positions or finials, for example), replicating the original’s translucency, colour and finish. The repair is always limited to the area of loss, using a colour-fill, discarding the need to overspray.
Images: To the left, an example of Bottger stoneware on display at the British Museum, to the right, a similar object whose finial was missing. The finial was copied after the BM's item and gilded to match the original's decoration.
Either Conservation or Restoration processes adhere to the unconditional respect for the object above all; I also take in consideration health and safety aspects inherent to the choice of materials and procedures as well as the type of ceramic (porcelain, terracotta, pottery), glass (archaeological or modern) and stone (alabaster or slate), just to name a few.
Ultimately the extension of any conservation/restoration work is defined by the values the Client wants to preserve; to enhance economic, sentimental, historic or social values Client and Conservator discuss the length of the work to be done according to these parameters.
Historically, restorers are sometimes compared to china-menders, which is not the case here, I assure you.
So... are you a Conservator or a Restorer?
I often say I am both but will introduce myself as either conservator or restorer depending on the context. The first is often used in an academic, professional-amongst-peers environment and the latter, to people trading and/or collecting.
This happens only because “Restoration” is a more familiar term and self-explanatory, while “conservation” is often associated with environmental or zoological jobs. However, it isn't either professional tile that defines what I do; my actions speak for themselves.