The first thing I surface cleaned and washed as a conservation student was an engraving that had been lost in the basement of a local historical museum. When I put it in the sink, the water instantly turned brown. My conservation instructor looked across the sink at me and said “satisfaction guaranteed.” It was indeed satisfying to watch the dirt release in the water, and as a young conservator I felt like I had done something to improve the print.

The truth though is that we often spend time cleaning and washing objects that show little discernible evidence of our work. I used eraser crumbs to clean some garden design prints last summer, and the only evidence that I had made an impact was the fact that the eraser crumbs turned black. To the naked eye the prints themselves looked just the same.

As conservators our goal is to stabilize objects, not to make them spiffy clean and new-looking. Many of the things done in the early years of our profession, like aggressively bleaching paper back to white, shortened the life of objects or made them more fragile. Our knowledge and our ethics teach us that sometimes our work is finished even though there is no visible improvement.

Still, it is human nature to want to see a visible change from time to time. Fortunately, there are times when you do get that satisfaction. Now, I wouldn’t suggest that anyone really wants to spend as much time with flood damaged plans as I have in the last year and a half, but there are some rewards to the work. You can use a chemical sponge on one side of a plan that looks like this..

…and after about ten minutes have something that looks like this. (And yes, they are photos of two different plans, but I didn’t get the idea for the blog post until I was mostly done cleaning.)

Satisfaction guaranteed indeed.

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