Preventive Conservation Unit
Prevention is better than cure. The Preventive Conservation team maps out all the risks of damage to an item or collection and advises you on avoiding problems.
Why preventive conservation?
Preventive conservation includes all measures and actions needed to prevent or minimise future damage to an art item or heritage collection. Marjolijn Debulpaep, head of the Preventive Conservation Unit, explains: "Our team do not carry out conservation treatments on works of art. We try to prevent the need for those interventions. The most efficient way to preserve a collection is to create good storage and exhibition conditions."
A custom approach to items or collections
A preventive survey always starts with an evaluation of the specific situation through an on-site visit. Each assignment requires a tailor-made approach: we consider the materials, their state and conservation environment, the interactions between various risk factors, etc.
Because so many factors have to be considered, the projects are often very complex or lengthy. The team, therefore, works mainly on a project basis.
The most efficient way to preserve a collection is to design good storage and exhibition conditions.
From analysis to advice
We analyse the causes of potential damage using the ten agents of deterioration. Depending on the results, we can carry out a survey of the environmental conditions, perform laboratory tests or assess the condition of a room, a showcase or even a train carriage in detail.
Based on the results, we help collection managers pass on their works of art or collection(s) to future generations in the best possible way:
- We advise on the appropriate materials for preventive conservation (storage, exhibition, preservation of objects).
- We assist in the development of the best possible exhibition or storage method for special art objects, such as the Enclosed Gardens of Mechelen, the tapestry cardboard of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, etc.
- We perform measurements and advise on the optimal climate conditions (temperature, relative humidity, light and UV).
- We advise on the prevention of damage by micro-organisms, insects and rodents (Integrated Pest Management or IPM).
- We advise on collection and storage management. As coordinators of the RE-ORG Belgium strategy, we help museums reorganise their collections in depots to make them accessible to collection managers and researchers.
A complete risk analysis, including concrete advice, is intensive work. That is why we also offer a more streamlined alternative. Using the QuickScan method, we quickly determine and evaluate the risks of a collection. Based on this, we extract ‘quick wins’: limited interventions with a significant effect. This may involve additional tests or analyses, the development of suitable display cases, or even tackling significant risks such as fire and water damage, among others.
The Ten Agents of Deterioration
In the early 1990s, heritage scientist Stefan Michalski of the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) developed a model of possible causes of damage to heritage and art collections: the Ten Agents of Deterioration. It is used by heritage scientists worldwide as a framework for risk analysis and preventive collection management. The ten agents of deterioration apply to all possible types of heritage and materials but with a variable impact.
The implementation of preventive conservation requires the combination of knowledge from several fields of expertise. Our team is therefore composed of experts from various backgrounds and specialities. Within the scope of our projects, we constantly work in collaboration with our colleagues in the conservation-restoration studios and labs, but also with external professionals: curator-restorers, heritage scientists, museum curators, exhibition designers, art transport companies, lighting specialists, architects, building engineers, art historians, etc.
We have also set up partnerships with renowned institutions, universities and (government) organisations in Belgium and internationally.
- Universities: KU Leuven, University of Antwerp, La Cambre, ULG
- Federal scientific institutions: all the federal museums, the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium (RMI-KMI), the Royal Library and the State Archives, BRAIN-be by Belspo
- The Communities and Regions: the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, Direction du Patrimoine Culturel/Urban.Brussels, Onroerend Erfgoed Vlaanderen, Topstukkenraad
- Knowledge centres: FARO, CIPAR, MOWA, MSW
- ICOM-Flanders and ICOM-Belgique Wallonie Bruxelles
- King Baudouin Foundation: KBS Heritage (Comhaire Fund)
- International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), Rome
- Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), Ottawa
- Central Institute for Conservation (CIK), Belgrade
A greater focus on preventive conservation
Laura Debry: "Preventive conservation has tremendous impact because it helps to avoid problems later on," says Laura Debry. "Although it is still not well known, it is undoubtedly a considerable asset for the heritage sector. So we believe that it is essential to share and disseminate our knowledge. In parallel to our projects, we give courses and speak at conferences. We also organise study days and conferences at national and international levels. We also regularly welcome interns to explain all the techniques of the profession."
Our specialists are active members of the Working Group Preventive Conservation of the International Council of Museums (ICOM-CC); they provide expert advice for the Flemish Government's Cultural Heritage Decree and are active on various scientific committees.
AGATO: an online tool for mixed-media objects
Elke Otten: "In the course of 2022, we will launch AGATO: an online tool to assist cultural heritage professionals in the preventive conservation of composite objects. After all, the different materials, each with a complex composition, have specific requirements for preservation."
Do you want to determine the risks that the materials in your mixed-media object are exposed to and how you can avoid damage? In AGATO, you can enter basic information about your object, the materials, their condition and the environmental conditions. This gives you an immediate assessment of the risks for your object, accompanied by valuable recommendations.
Would you like to know if your historic mixed media object is conserved in a safe way? To which elements in the environment of your object you should pay attention so they would not harm your object? Or on which materials you should keep an eye because they risk degrading?
AGATO will assist you with an overview of risks that could cause damage to your object and with recommendations for the preventive conservation of the materials most susceptible for damage. These should enable you to decide which action to take.
The ArtGarden Decision Support Tool is intended for any museum professional or cultural heritage caretaker. It is available for all persons responsible for the preservation of an object (or a collection) and in charge of taking preservation decisions or all persons legitimately requested to support the preservation decisions.
Whether the user is a preventive conservation advisor taking care of a storage, a curator organizing the loan of an object, a museum technician assisting with the installation of an object in an exhibition, a conservator examining a mixed media object or any other museum professional confronted to a mixed-media object, the tool is there for him/her to use.
Available for free from December 8, 2022 on agato.kikirpa.be.