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Behind the Scenes24th January 2024

Conservation or Restoration?

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Conservation or Restoration? When caring for the objects, buildings, and artifacts at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, there are many options to consider including conservation, restoration, renovation, or preservation. These four options involve working on an artifact but have different outcomes. Keep reading to find out The Historic Dockyard Chatham’s preferred method.

What is the difference between conservation and restoration?

Restoration returns an object, building, or any historical artifact back to its original state so that it is ‘like new’. Whereas conservation seeks to preserve an artifact in its current state and prevent further degradation.

What Approach does The Historic Dockyard Chatham take?

Here at The Historic Dockyard Chatham, we feel that it is vital to preserve an object that continues to tell its story.

What The Dockyard’s Conservator says…

The Historic Dockyard Chatham’s Conservator (Objects and Preventive), Karoline explained that The Dockyard’s approach is to conserve rather than the restoration route.

“As a conservator, I quite often receive comments like “I cannot see the difference” and “Wait, what did you actually do to this object?” following the completion of a conservation treatment.

While these comments make me feel like I have succeeded as a conservator, I do understand people’s confusion. The word “restoration” has been around much longer than “conservation” when considering heritage and museum artifact preservation. Therefore, it is understandable that the use of the word “conservation” will take some more getting used to.

Theoretically, the word “restoration” means that the intention is to return an object to its “original condition”. Methods can include an incredibly invasive treatment process. By doing so, many of the historical or natural changes to the object that have happened over time, for example- patinas, might get removed and lost.

As a conservator, this is not something I would normally do unless the historic changes are posing a risk to the long-term preservation of an object. I believe that historical changes become part of an object’s story and can be as equally important as production methods or historical context.

To me, a great example of this is outdoor bronze statues. If you ask a person to describe an outdoor bronze statue, most people describe them as structures with a blue-green colour. Initially, they will be a red-orange colour as the bronze has not yet oxidised and created the protective blue-green patina. However, as time passes, they will turn blue-green without any human intervention. This is a great example of how historical changes over time become part of the identity of an object.”

What’s Next?

The HMS Wellesley figurehead (circa 1815) has been at The Historic Dockyard Chatham since it was salvaged from the wreck of the ship in 1948. Today you can see it as you enter the site through the Main Gate. It has been Grade II listed since 1971 due to its historical significance.

The figurehead is temporarily covered up to allow it to dry out ahead of planned conservation work that will begin in the spring of 2024.

Volunteers Frank and Mim created the cover under the supervision of the Collections Team. The figurehead has suffered from some structural damage and paint loss as part of being on outdoor display. The structural damage will be stabilised, and areas of paint loss will be repainted to protect the figurehead’s surface. Special planning ahead of the conservation work has been completed to ensure all work meets Grade II listed criteria.

A small window into our past

Like what you’ve read? Learn more about the work of the Dockyard and the people who not only built ships at Chatham but served on them for 400 years.

Our Collections Online, Digital Exhibitions, Reading Room, Online Dockyard History, and much more are available to help you dive a little deeper into our history.

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