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MHS Library | Art Conservation and Restoration

Art Conservation

This information about conservation is from the NGV website.


How do you look after a 500-year old drawing, or restore an ancient Egyptian mummy case? This is the work of NGV conservators who preserve, examine and restore artworks in the Gallery’s care.

Much of their work is hidden from view in conservation laboratories, but it can be seen in the condition of the artworks on display, and in the gallery environments that surround them.

Why conservation is important

Light, dust, temperature, humidity – all these things can damage artworks. Preventive conservation provides a safe environment for artworks when they are on display, in storage and during handling and travel. This includes the controlled lighting, temperature and even the ‘please do not touch signs’ in the Gallery. 

Remedial conservation involves treating artworks to keep them in good condition. For example, oil paintings were traditionally finished with a layer of natural varnish. Over time this varnish can discolour, and needs to be removed or replaced.

Sometimes more complex treatments are required, often because an artwork has been damaged. For example, in 2002, the Gallery acquiredSpring 1890 by Arthur Streeton. It was in a poor condition, having been inexpertly restored, and also coated in estapol. NGV conservators successfully restored the painting as the artist intended it to be seen.

What conservators do

Conservation is highly specialised work that requires art and science knowledge and skills. It includes technical analysis of materials and processes used to make artworks. This can involve examining artworks using microscopes, infra-red photography, X-rays or other technology. 

Art history research also provides important information about art materials, processes and artistic intentions, helping conservators apply the right treatment to an artwork. The aim of their treatments is not to make artworks look like new; their work respects the artist’s intention and the history of the artwork.

Conservators document their work to add to knowledge of the artwork and to inform further treatments should they be needed.

Conservators' discoveries

This information about conservation is from the NGV website.

Conservators’ discoveries

Restoring an Australian icon
In preparation for the exhibition Australian Impressionism in 2007, NGV conservators undertook an extensive technical examination of Tom Roberts’s iconic painting Shearing the rams. This guided the restoration, which involved removing a layer of heavily discoloured varnish and repainting (believed to have been done by restorers more than 100 years ago) to reveal Robert’s original brushstrokes and tones.

An X-ray image of the painting also revealed evidence of changes made by Roberts during the process of making the painting. The back of the central shearer was originally almost horizontal but in the final painting it is on an angle that echoes other diagonal lines in the composition. This shearer was also originally clean-shaven.  

Solving a Renaissance mystery
Dosso Dossi Lucrezia Borgia,Duchess of Ferrara c. 1518
In 2008, after extensive technical and art history research, NGV conservators discovered the identity of the artist and the subject of a mysterious Renaissance portrait in the Gallery’s collection. Lucrezia Borgia, the Duchess of Ferrara is the subject, painted by Dosso Dossi (c. 1486–1542).

Reassembling Egyptian treasure
Lid from the inner anthropoid coffin of Tjeseb
Conservation work on the lid of the coffin of Tjeseb has involved significant scientific research, including an analysis of the paint layer to identify the pigments used. With the help of digital technology, NGV conservators have also created a visual reconstruction of the lid to determine what fragments may be missing.

Conservation projects

Nativity figures (AICCM)

The Poussin Project (NGV)

Fourteen months in 70 seconds (NGV)

Witness the transformation of Poussin’s Crossing of the Red Sea in this slideshow chronicling the various stages of conservation treatment: the removal of old varnish and restorations, the application of a new varnish, and the gradual process of inpainting the lost and worn passages of paint.  If you look closely you will notice the changes first in the lower half of the painting, then up through the mountains and landscape, and finally throughout the sky.

Further information

Caring for works on paper (State Library of Victoria)

An example of repair of plaster bust of Mae West (State Library of Victoria)

Preventive Conservation in the Context of a Historic House Museum: A Case Study - The case study provides an important opportunity for students to explore the complexities involved in weighing options and making decisions about environmental control and use of historic spaces and collections, particularly in situations in which no clearcut right approach is apparent. The case integrates the expertise and viewpoints of other professionals, requiring students to consider conservation issues from several perspectives.

Conservation of photographic materials (The Getty Conservation Institute)

The key photochemical experiments and observations conducted prior to 1826 (The Getty Conservation Institute)

Environment and storage (UNESCO)



About Conservation (AICCM)

This information is from the AICCM website.

Conservation is about preventing damage and loss to our cultural heritage.

Conservators aim to minimise change to collection material, to protect items from the adverse effects of climate and chemical deterioration, and to safeguard our heritage not only for here and now but for generations to come.

Conservation activities include preservation, restoration, examination, documentation, research, advice, treatment, preventive conservation, training and education.

The term preservation refers to the protection of cultural property by minimising chemical and physical deterioration. Improved storage conditions and environmental control plays a big part in this. The primary goal of preservation is to prolong the existence of cultural material.

Restoration involves treatments that enhance the interpretation of cultural heritage—e.g. inpainting losses in an oil painting so that the original appearance of the image is maintained. Restoration may also involve the reassembly of displaced components, removal of extraneous matter or integrating new materials or components in order to stabilise and strengthen the original artefact.

  • Conservators choose methods of minimal intervention, focusing on stabilisation and retaining original material.
  • Conservators use materials with good ageing characteristics and where possible, treatment methods that are reversible.
  • Conservators document the condition of an object through written reports and photographs, both before and after treatment, in order to retain records of what has been changed, for future owners and caretakers.
  • AICCM Conservators adhere to the Code of Ethics and Code of Practice