The Conservation Materials database answers a need for easily accessible technical information and concise definitions for materials used in the making and treatment of artistic and historic works. It will be a very helpful tool for practicing conservators, conservation scientists, curators, art and materials historians, and producers and providers of artists materials, not to mention for artists themselves. It effectively combines terminology from scholarly, scientific, historical, industrial and craft sources. To have all of this information available in one comprehensive book/ CD-ROM/ or Internet site will be invaluable.
The database is easy to use and very well designed. It provides a brief definition of each term which is comprehensible to the non-scientist. Starting with the general type and use or biological source of the material, it proceeds to the key characteristics of the material. The industrial uses for the material are usually included prior to any particular use which might be related to art objects directly. Synonyms for the term defined are listed directly under the definition. These are cross-referenced to the main term. Eventually this field could he expanded to include terms in other languages (see “Recommendations” at the end of this review).
The most important chemical and physical characteristics of the material are summarized in a table which provides information important to conservation scientists and conservators. This is followed by a section for hazards which is especially useful for the practicing conservator (and artist), who could use the database as a short but complete reference to the known hazards of materials that might currently be in use.
Each definition is followed by a section for “further information” or references to key literature on the material in question. This leads the reader to the most important articles or notations about the material. Thus the Conservation Materials Database can serve as an important research tool which will considerably aid anyone looking into a particular material for the first time. This feature of the database is particularly useful for further research into materials and is one of the great strengths of the database.
The database design is clear and logical. It is divided into “browse” and “search” functions. The “browse” function provides a complete alphabetical listing of all of the entries. Intuitively the user sees that the description following a word can be read by clicking on the entry sentence. (In my computer the word and description are one or two characters longer than the size Of the field, making it necessary to use the scroll bar along the bottom to see the entire word and its definition. If possible, this should be changed). The “full record” option brings up the expanded record for the term. By pushing the “browse” button along the bottom scroll bar one returns to the same place in the alphabetical list. (This might be clearer if, instead of “browse” this were simply a “back ” button).
The “search” function in the database is well structured and clear. Four different searches are possible- by name, synonym, description and classification. The classification-fields are quite broad. More detailed classifications could make this search field more powerful. For example, a paintings conservator might want to look at all of the different resins used for varnishing paintings. Currently these are divided into the “oil/resin/wax/gum” field (464 entries) and the “polymer/adhesive” field (340 entries).
One minor change relating to the database structure would be very helpful. When it is opened, the Filemaker database program blackens the computer screen, making it impossible to click back and forth from the database to another open program on the desktop. It would be handy to be able to move easily into another program, if possible. I imagine, the database as an icon on the desktop, that would be clicked open and consulted on an almost daily basis.
The content of the database is excellent and wide ranging. With over 9000 terms, it promises to be a primary source for information in the field of art conservation and conservation science.
Amongst the terms included in the database are commercial products that have gone out of use or nearly gone out of use (e.g. FomeCor). The conservation database will be the first database to gather these materials in one place. It should include as many of these materials as possible. Many of the products are familiar to a few conservators in a local area. Yet they are referred to in conservation reports, either from the past, recent past or present. Often, there is no description of what they consist of, in the old conservation reports . The conservation materials database will help conservators now and in the future to decode old condition reports and to be better able to have an idea of what may have been used on a particular work of art.
As a paintings conservator, I would very much like to see commercially available paints used in the field of conservation included in the database. This may be quite difficult, since paint manufacturers have not and often do not provide information on the their paint formulas and often change formulations. Nevertheless, it would be valuable for paintings conservators to have a reference which defined the various inpainting materials likely to be found in an old treatment report.
Other terms, used in the past but not common today, might also be included. One example is “MI2″ (shorthand for a combination of solvents commonly used for varnish removal at the Fogg in the 1960s). The database could be a repository for such terminology.
The conservation database will certainly be used on a daily basis by conservators and conservation scientists. It will be a fundamental tool for checking the composition of solvents or pigments in use in the lab, for looking up hazard information on materials, for clarifying old records, and for. teaching purposes. It will also be a first step in checking references on materials or researching the composition of unfamiliar materials. The database will be of great interest to other specialties such as art historians interested in the materials and techniques used in the making of works of art or artists concerned with the materials they choose.
The database can function as a quick source of definitions, chemical formulas, class, geographical or biological source, manufacturer, dating, composition and characteristics, hazards, synonyms, and usage in industry or conservation. It can also function as a primary research tool to guide investigators towards key literature on the materials in question.
The choice of terms defined is wide reaching. I do not think any of the terms chosen are superfluous. If the database were to be made even larger, I would like to see terms specific to the tools and procedures used in the production of paintings and in painting conservation. Since all of the fields of conservation would need to be given the same importance, however, this would mean a major redefinition of the database. Therefore, I think it is perhaps best to limit the database to the current selection of entries, rather than to make it significantly larger. Later editions of the database could emphasize the tools and methods used in making and conserving works of art.
The design of the individual fields is clear and complete. The format of the “Properties” field, which is presented in a table, allows for quick comparisons with other materials. The table presents only the most important data on a particular material. Anyone needing more information can turn to the references cited in the “further information” field. The “search” field pulls up terms and their synonyms quickly. The hazards field is an excellent inclusion in the database. It is very important that this field be as complete as possible in the final version of the database. It would be crucial to indicate when a hazard is unknown since the database could be used to judge the safety of a material in use. There should be some shorthand indication for materials whose hazards are unknown – lack of information in this field might be interpreted as a positive comment on its safety as a material. Where applicable, the MSDS sheets could be referred to. Where not applicable some comment could he made – such as “hazard unknown”, if there is any doubt about the safety of the material.