Why We Conserve

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Perhaps you have some special keepsakes in your home: Grandmother’s dishes, Dad’s military medals, first-day-of school photographs. These are the objects that help you remember your family stories and share them with the next generation. You do your best to protect them from wear and tear, dust and rust.

Now imagine that you’re responsible not just for your own family’s memories, but for a nation’s keepsakes. When an object is accepted into a museum collection like Montpelier’s, it takes on a new meaning. No longer is it one person’s memento; it is a museum piece, empowered to tell a compelling story for generations to come. You might serve a holiday meal on Grandmother’s dishes and hope for the best, but a museum can’t take chances with its collection. Museum staff must take extraordinary precautions to prevent damage and loss to the collections in their care, and to slow down the deterioration that is inevitable for any material objects.

Careful cleaning is one aspect of preservation. Dust attracts moisture, and moisture can lead to tarnish on silver, for example. Controlling environmental factors such as light and humidity can also help to preserve museum collections. Too much light will fade paper and fabrics in a surprisingly short time. Sudden changes in a room’s humidity can warp the doors or drawers of furniture, or cause delicate inlaid wood designs to pop out of place. The staff of historic house museums like Montpelier must monitor the building and its collection as a whole, as well as taking care of individual objects.

A historic house has one additional challenge faced by few private homes: thousands of visitors every year! Rather than wait for evidence of wear and tear, the museum staff must anticipate the effects of a constant trail of footsteps across original floorboards and consider the consequences of placing objects where they might be repeatedly bumped or brushed.

From January 2-15, 2013 the staff at Montpelier will undertake a number of projects to enhance the safety and preservation of the collection during the quiet of the post-holiday season. When Montpelier re-opens on January 16, the collection will be rested, refreshed, and ready to tell the Madisons’ story for thousands more visitors to enjoy.