October 26, 1999
In the spring of 1999 I was asked by Arthur Beale, Director of Conservation for the Museum of Fine Arts to participate in a grant funded project headed by Michelle Derrick, Conservation Scientist. The project was funded by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training and the Museum of Fine Art Boston. As a contributor, I participated in the project by supplying bibliographic references for sources of terms that could enter the database in the architectural and mineral categories. As a reviewer, I participated by reviewing definitions included in the database and commenting on the overall format and utility of the database.
My architectural conservation practice is focused on the conservation of masonry buildings and architectural stone sculpture. In particular, I am focused on traditional masonry construction and the structural problems associated with conserving these types of buildings. However, on some projects, for example, those that involve the conservation of the exterior of a historic building as well as the conservation of interior decorative schemes and the collections housed within the building, I am frequently asked to coordinate and evaluate treatments proposed by conservators from other disciplines. In the past, as director of one of the regional conservation centers, I coordinated and supervised the work of architectural conservators, building conservation craftsmen, objects conservators, mural conservators, paint conservators, upholstery conservators and furniture conservators. The Conservation Materials Database is, for me, potentially an invaluable tool, useful not only for looking up terms and references within my own field, but also for evaluating materials, terms and eventually treatments used by conservators from other disciplines.
Aside from my own uses and the use of other conservators I anticipate that the database will be very useful to the teams of architects, engineers, historians, archeologists, scientists and conservators who investigate historic buildings in order to produce Historic Structure’s Reports. One of the challenges in drafting, or evaluating, a massive report pulled together from the work of researchers from different disciplines is understanding the terms used by the professionals of each field. It is not uncommon for one researcher to refer to a material by its component parts while another refers to it by its trade name or the historic term that was used when the structure was constructed. The Conservation Materials Database has made a good start at listing materials by their component parts, trade names, historic names, chemical components and historic and contemporary uses. If the database can continue to develop along the present lines I think it will serve a useful purpose by helping to give individuals involved in the care of cultural property, regardless of their training or background, a common set of terms and references. The Conservation Materials Database differs from existing handbooks or glossaries firstly because of its interdisciplinary approach and secondly because of the manner in which it is structured with layers of information accessible to individuals with differing backgrounds and requirements.
Structure and Format
The current format of key terms with short definitions that then expand with the touch of a cursor to longer definitions is ideal for users who may be partially familiar with a term or not familiar at all. The format allows the user to skim the database and then plunge deeper into the meaning, uses and components of a specific material or process. In evaluating a digital format against a printed one, a printed version would not offer the same flexibility or ability to extract specific information on an entry without first digesting the entire entry. A printed version however would offer additional uses in the field for individuals working without or with limited access to computers.
I do not have enough experience to evaluate either alternate database formats that might be appropriate or the potential downside of putting a database such as this on line. I also do not have enough experience to anticipate if, or how, the current format might be hindered as the database expands.
As the database grows it seems to me that certain terms or materials should be bundled with other terms or materials under topic headings. For example currently, each type of marble quarried historically in Vermont is listed alphabetically by the common or trade name of the stone. If all of these entries were bundled under the heading “Vermont Marbles” I think the database would be easier to browse.
The terms in the two sections that I reviewed systematically, architecture and minerals section are very well defined when the entry is a material but less well defined when the entry concerns a process. For example, aggregate, cement and lime, components of mortar are well defined as materials in the database. The definitions however for making mortar and the processes involved such as slaking lime, mixing the ingredients and curing the end product are a little confusing. The Conservation Materials Database must find a way to strike a balance between the type of entry that would go into a glossary and the type of entry that might be found in a textbook or encyclopedia. Some processes simply have too many variables to lend themselves to easy summary.
A second concern that I have with the content of the database is whether it is necessary to duplicate the entries of existing glossaries and handbooks. The practice of architectural conservation for example involves the use and understanding of thousands of technical terms for describing architectural elements such as lintel, architrave, boss and chase It also involves thousands of materials ranging from hundreds of different types of stone and species of wood to, in the 20th century a host of synthetic products and a seemingly infinite number of ways of combining them. There exist at the moment a number of glossaries, dictionaries and handbooks on architecture terms. There also exist a number of books, both in print and out of print, for sources of building stone and timber. The primary challenge for the Conservation Materials Database is to determine what should be included and what can be excluded, not because it is not important but because it exists in a readily accessible form elsewhere. The inclusion of a bibliography in each section of the database could help mediate between the potential number of terms that could be included in the database and the actual number included.
In reviewing the entries included in the architecture and mineral sections of the database I was struck by the number of materials or terms that despite twenty-five years of working on buildings, I was not familiar with. While this speaks well of the content of the database it also speaks to my, or any one person’s, ability to review the database for either accuracy of the definitions or scope of the individual sections. In time, I think that what is required is an editorial board of contributors and reviewers. The ideal board would be interdisciplinary in nature, composed of specialists and generalists. The role of the board would be to evaluate entries for content, particularly those that define a process rather than a material, and in addition help decide on what should be included and just as importantly, what should be excluded.
The Conservation Materials Database is potentially an invaluable tool. It fills a void precisely because it is interdisciplinary, detailed enough to inform specialists but organized in such a way as to be useful to generalists as well. In addition it is easy to use.
Perhaps it is possible on the long term for the database to be broadly comprehensive but on the short term there are some key decisions that must be made as to what to include and what to exclude. The tension lies between listing a larger number of entries and defining a smaller number of entries more thoroughly. The decision as what to include and what to exclude as well as evaluating the accuracy of the definitions requies the input of a number of experienced individuals.