Preserving Metal With a Mind Toward the Future

Museum and heritage-site staff from 15 countries wrapped up a two-week workshop on the preservation of metal artifacts over the weekend.

The workshop, held at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, focused on the best techniques to use in conserving metal, as well as broad strategies to adopt in the preservation of entire collections of metal artifacts.

“In many countries, the metal heritage is very highly valued, very significant…often high-profile objects, and so their conservation can be controversial,” said workshop director Katriina Simila of the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, an organization established by Unesco.

For instance, a shiny silver piece will appeal to the public more than a dull one. But since cleaning can damage an artifact, conservation staff must evaluate how much is safe, and this often leads to heated discussion, Ms. Simila explained.

There also are limitations as to what preservation can achieve: Some participants in the workshop were shocked to learn that corrosion is next to impossible to prevent, even when objects are closely monitored, said Huot Samnang, team leader of the Metal Conservation Laboratory at the National Museum, whose collection includes nearly 80,000 metal objects.

A humidity-controlled environment, which is ideal for preservation, can hardly be achieved in open-air galleries such as those of the museum in Phnom Penh.

“To understand how to handle the objects, you have to examine signs of change that have happened to the artifacts and also look into the manufacturing techniques used to create them,” Mr. Samnang said.

“In 100 years’ time, you may have a problem because of something that you have done today [which is why] conservation decisions must be made very long term,” Ms. Simila added.

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