Tate’s conservation science and preventive conservation team collaborates with conservators and curators, and colleagues in other museums and universities, to carry out research and to support the care of Tate’s collection.
Conservation scientists carry out research into artists’ materials and techniques, and study parts of the collection that are both difficult to conserve and poorly understood in terms of construction and materials. They also develop methods for and provide analysis of materials, and offer many other types of scientific support for conservation and collection-related activities.
Preventive conservation encompasses actions carried out to slow or prevent deterioration of art works, and is an integral part of all conservation work. Preventive conservators work with environmental data (temperature, relative humidity levels, light exposure, dust and pollutants) to advise others on how different gallery and store spaces may affect different art works over time, and carry out Integrated Pest Management (IPM) monitoring and response across Tate sites.
- research into Tate’s collection
- scientific analysis of Tate’s collection
- support for conservation treatments and practice
- monitoring of Tate’s display and storage environments
- health and safety
- training and dissemination
Tate’s small team of conservation scientists carry out a wide range of tasks from leading Tate’s contribution to international, collaborative research projects to providing advice on the health and safety of art and conservation materials. Scientific tasks can be split onto two main areas – research, and support for conservation department activities.
Research is generally collaborative, and encompasses projects with a medium-to- longer-term focus and can involve investigations into a range of artists, a single artist or a particular art or conservation material. Current research includes a focus on the materials used in modern and contemporary art through initiatives such as the Modern Oils Research Consortium, which follows on from a sustained period of exploring Tate’s historic British collection.
Support for conservation department activities involves advising conservators on art and conservation materials, scientific methods and research methodologies and can include the chemical and optical analysis of works of art and minute samples carefully removed from them. Analysis is carried out using a range of microscopic, spectroscopic and mass spectrometric techniques with the aim of identifying materials and/or understanding the degree of change that has taken place over time.
The team also promotes a constructive and far-sighted approach to the use and conservation of the collection. Fundamental to this work is the widespread dissemination of research and knowledge through publications, lectures and training – both to the wider conservation profession and the general public. Conservation science staff publish frequently in scientific and specialist conservation literature, have produced books on artists’ materials and techniques, and disseminated research through Tate Papers.
Preventive conservation may be defined as all actions which delay, slow or halt the damage or deterioration of art works and other cultural heritage.
Working collaboratively with Tate’s Estates, Collections Care, and other teams, the preventive conservator collects, analyses and reports on environmental and pest data collected in spaces containing art. Different art types and collections have varying environmental requirements and our galleries, studios and stores each have their own environmental profiles depending on the types of building structure and control strategies in place. Tate has recently adopted and endorsed the Bizot Green Protocol 2015, a set of guidelines requiring intelligent and appropriate environmental conditions for collections, taking into account the desire to balance long-term preservation of collections with the need to reduce energy use. Working with other conservation specialists enables this approach through a thorough understanding of our spaces and the requirements of individual and groups of art works.
Regular tasks may include routine data collection from pest traps, light loggers and environmental loggers. Information collected is then analysed and reported on as recommendations and action plans. Additional monitoring is often required to support the display and care of works in temporary exhibitions, displays or on loan to other institutions. Advice is also given to help manage the conservation risks posed by special events and activities in the gallery spaces.
Preventive conservation tasks are also often tailored to answer small-scale research questions supporting the use, display and safe transport of the collections.
Department history and people
The Conservation Science Department was established by Stephen Hackney (Head of Conservation Science, Tate, retired 2010), with Dr Townsend appointed in 1987. This was followed by the appointment of Dr Tom Learner in 1992 (departed 2006) and Dr Bronwyn Ormsby in 2003. Helen L Smith was appointed as Tate’s first dedicated (part-time) Preventive Conservator in 2011. In addition to the current core team of three, the section frequently hosts doctoral students, post-doctoral and pre-doctoral fellows, in addition to interns and professional contract staff.
Current Science Team
Updated July 2015