Object Conservation

The NC Museum of History has more than 150,000 items in its collection. The museum's job is not to restore an item to how it was when it was made, but to conserve it, and slow the process of decay. We talk with the lead conservator to find how it is done, what science is used to do it, and how the museum sometimes must reject items that can't be preserved.

RALEIGH - You can spend many hours, and even days, walking through the North Carolina Museum of History, immersing yourself in the rich history of the Tar Heel State. 

The museum has collected more than 150,000 items from Native Americans and the pre-colonial era to the early settlers, the state’s founding and development, the Civil War and slavery, the industrial revolution, depression, World Wars and on into today. The museum also tells the story of how the state has transformed from a completely agricultural economy which grew tobacco and cotton to also include technology, biotechnology, banking and an increasingly important green industry. The history is well told through interesting displays and the items to illustrate it all are preserved and exhibited. 

Notice I wrote the word preserved, not restored.

“We don’t restore, we don’t bring back items to what they used to look like,” Jennifer French, a curator at the museum told me. “Because each object has a history, it has a group of people who used it, who have affected it, and so unless it is damaging the object, we don’t change that. The wear and tear on an item tells the story, the history of what happened to it, what it was used for and how it was treated.”

The work of preserving the items that tell the story of the state’s history is done in the conservation labs in the museum basement. You can find an amazing assortment of items in various states of decay/restoration, from a World War Two Spitfire pilot’s helmet to a mold covered photo of the North Carolina Supreme Court as well as a chair built by Thomas Day, a free man of color who built furniture in the antebellum south of the 1840’s.  

You also find tools of every kind, ranging from fine picks and scrapers that are also used in dental offices to more robust drills and sanding tools. There are also bottles and containers holding an assortment of chemicals that preserve and clean objects along with braces, magnifiers, lights and lab tables.

“We do as little to no harm as possible to every item,” adds French. “Our goal is to stabilize the object while respecting its inherent beauty and its inherent value.”

But sometimes and practical questions overshadow the science of conservation.

“We have to think about this with every piece somebody may want to give to the museum,” said Ken Howard, Director of the North Carolina Museum of History. “If something is in really bad shape, I may not have the staff or the budget to preserve it and we’ve passed on items that are too badly damaged.”

French’s work on he pilot’s helmet is a case in point. The wires that connected the helmet to the plane’s radio system, allowing the pilot to talk with the pilot’s of other planes as well as ground command, are fraying. French is using a delicate artist’s paintbrush to apply a binding solution to the fraying wire. She next uses a small wooden tool with a flat edge to push the fraying edges, which are now covered with the tacky chemical, down onto the wire. If it all stays together it should prevent further fraying.

It is a delicate process performed under a giant magnifying glass. It also is painstakingly slow. But French believes it is worth it.

“You get into this because you love history,” said French, looking at the helmet through the lens. “You enjoy interacting with these objects and being able to touch this and know that some person in the past used it and loved it or hated it. It is very interesting.”

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