The science behind instrument conservation

From analyzing the condition of an instrument to inspecting a sample under a magnifying glass, science plays an important role in the work of MIM’s conservation team. While preserving instruments for future generations, conservators also take a deeper look at instruments’ pasts.

“The main purpose of conservation in a museum is to preserve and restore the original quality of the object,” says Rodrigo Correa-Salas, MIM’s conservator. “We use a variety of systems, techniques, procedures, and protocols that help us determine and perform the appropriate treatment for restoration or maintenance.”

When an instrument or object first arrives at MIM, it remains in its shipping box or crate for three days for acclimatization, then a museum registrar documents the piece’s measurements, materials, and other noteworthy details. After the instrument receives an object number and is registered in MIM’s database, a curator reviews and analyzes its condition. Correa-Salas then observes the object’s structural state and discusses any recommended restorations with the curator. Instruments continue to storage or custom mounts are designed for them before they are put on display.

Recently, Correa-Salas performed laboratory tests on two instruments to gather more details about their pasts. One was an ancient Andean panpipe made of condor bone, alpaca fiber, and hair. On display at the Ancient Andes exhibit in MIM’s Latin America Gallery, the panpipe comes from the Nazca culture, which flourished more than 1,500 years ago beside the arid southern coast of Peru. Correa-Salas sent a sample of hair from the instrument for DNA analysis to confirm its origin. He expects to receive results in coming months.

The conservation team also tested a large figurative wooden rattle of the Lega people located in the Eastern Central region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The rare instrument from the late 1800s was used in a secret society for initiation rituals and is on display in MIM’s special exhibition, Congo Masks and Music: Masterpieces from Central Africa. To verify what materials were located inside the instrument, Correa-Salas ran X-rays and a CT scan with Dr. Chris Frouge of Banner Imaging. Testing revealed that the rattle’s interior contained five large iron bells packed with grass and leaves for sound dampening and possibly ritual purposes, two wooden beaters, and an iron nail to hold the bells and beaters in place. The images also showed a repair on the right side of the instrument with a nail that had no deterioration.

Conservation Lab procedures align with many steps of the scientific method, including observation, data analysis, experimentation, testing, and forming a conclusion or hypothesis. When performing these various steps, Correa-Salas uses a variety of tools such as a microscope, magnifying glass, brushes, blades, clamps, waxes, and varnish.

“The beautiful thing about my work is that many times you have to make your own tools depending on the instrument or object you’re looking at,” says Correa-Salas. “It’s a really creative process.”

With all instruments or objects, contextualization is one of the most important parts of conservation work, according to Correa-Salas. By reviewing previous research from a curator and referencing related books in the conservation library, he gathers information such as how the instrument was used and the meaning of the instrument in its community.

“You begin to hear the sound of the particular community; it’s a really rich experience,”
says Correa-Salas.