Conservation of Musical Instruments

What is conservation? 

Conservation constitutes those measures and actions aimed at ensuring the long-term preservation of cultural heritage as well as its present and future accessibility.  Conservation is an interdisciplinary field, merging science, humanities, technology, studio art, and craft practice in order to understand the materials and techniques originally used to create cultural property, such as musical instruments, to contextualize cultural heritage in the various social and physical environments it has inhabited, and to understand the degradation processes that pose risks to its long-term preservation.   

Conservation is performed by conservators, specialized professionals qualified to undertake both interventive treatments of the physical object and preventive measures aimed at creating a suitable environment for storage and display.  Most typically trained in post-baccalaureate conservation programs, conservators specialize in a specific material or type of cultural heritage and follow a Code of Ethics set forth by the conservation professional organization in their locality.  They conduct examinations of cultural property to better understand current condition as well as the methods and materials of manufacture, often utilizing scientific analytical methods to aid in identification of materials and degradation processes.  Critically, conservators document the condition of an object both before and after an intervention, in both written and photographic forms. They record the results of analyses performed on the object as well as findings from their own research and consultations with relevant stakeholders.  A conservator utilizes such assessments to make informed treatment decisions, considering as well the goals of conducting an interventive treatment, the degree of reversibility of a given treatment, the ability to differentiate new material from old, and the potential future impact of treatment on an object. As there are occasions when not treating an object is the best decision, a conservator will also consider preventive measures for preservation, advising on ideal storage, display, and travel conditions.    

Conservation of Musical Instruments 

Unlike paintings, sculptures and photographs, musical instruments are functional objects that cannot be fully appreciated through their visual aspects alone – in many cases much of their artistic value comes from the sound that they are able to produce. It is important for a musical instrument conservator to understand the acoustic and musical functioning of an instrument and to use treatment methods that do not alter these functions. However, playing an instrument will over time inevitably cause it to deteriorate. It is the role of a musical instrument conservator to determine if and how an instrument can be played safely and to minimize the risk of damage or loss of original material. 

In those cases where a musical instrument is no longer playable, a conservator needs to balance the educational and aesthetic gains of restoring it to playing condition for use in performance against the potential wear and tear, and loss of original substance caused by such interventions. Restoration to a playable condition often involves replacement or alteration of original pieces and can be detrimental to the long-term preservation of an instrument. It is therefore considered by many to be inconsistent with standards of practice long accepted for other classes of museum collections. 

Besides its functions as a music making tool and decorative object, an instrument can be seen as a document of instrument making technology and musical or ritual practice of a specific time-period and culture. By applying a wide array of analytical tools and techniques for the technical study of musical instruments, conservators play an important role in documenting, interpreting, and disseminating this  


Recommended readings

The Care of Historic Musical Instruments – Edited by Robert L. Barclay 

Recommendations for the Conservation of Musical Instruments – CIMCIM Publications

Conservation Professional Organisations 

AIC (The American Institute for Conservation)
“The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) is the leading membership association for current and aspiring conservators and allied professionals who preserve cultural heritage. They represent more than 3,500 individuals in more than forty countries around the world working in the domains of science, art, and history through treatment, research, collections care, education, and more.” The Journal of the American Institute for Conservation publishes peer-reviewed research papers, technical studies, treatment case studies, and more within the field of conservation and preservation.” 

AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials)
“AICCM is the professional organisation for conservators in Australia. AICCM’s membership is made up of professional conservators, conservation students and cultural heritage member organisations. Our membership also includes people who work in related professions, such as archivists, architects, curators and librarians, as well as volunteers and those with a general interest in cultural heritage.  The AICCM Bulletin is a hard copy and online peer reviewed journal produced by the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM) since 1975.” 

CCI (Canadian Conservation Institute)
“The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), a Special Operating Agency within the Department of Canadian Heritage, advances and promotes the conservation of Canada’s heritage collections through its expertise in conservation science, treatment and preventive conservation. CCI works with heritage institutions and professionals to ensure these heritage collections are preserved and accessible to Canadians now and in the future.  The Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) provides a number of publications free of charge and a select number for purchase.”  

E.C.C.O. (European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers’ Organisation)
“E.C.C.O., the European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers’ Organisation was established in 1991 by 14 European Conservator-Restorers‘ Organisations. Currently representing close to 6.000 professionals within 22 countries and 25 members organisations, including one international body (IADA), E.C.C.O. embodies the field of preservation of cultural heritage, both movable and immovable. “ 

 ICOM-CC (International Council of Museums – Committee for Conservation)
“ICOM-CC is the largest of the International Committees of ICOM (International Council of Museums) with over 2600 members worldwide from every branch of the museum and conservation profession. ICOM-CC aims to promote the conservation of culturally and historically significant works and to further the goals of the conservation profession. ICOM-CC is built up of specialist Working Groups, which actively communicate with their members through newsletters, meetings and at the Triennial Congress.”  ICOM-CC Publications Online includes searchable Triennial Conference Publications from 1972 and 2019 publications from three Working Groups: Glass and Ceramics, Metals, and Leather and Related Materials.   

ICON (The Institute of Conservation)
“The Institute of Conservation is a charity and membership organisation and the professional body representing and supporting the practice and profession of conservation. Icon champions excellence in conservation and promotes the value of caring for heritage.”  The Journal of the Institute of Conservation, a “peer-reviewed Journal is published three times a year.” 

IIC (International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works)
“Non profit organization promoting the knowledge, methods and working standards needed to protect and preserve historic and artistic works throughout the world for more than fifty years.”  IIC publishes Studies in Conservation, a “premier international peer-reviewed journal for the conservation of historic and artistic works.” 


Additional Resources

AATA Online (Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts)
“A free research database containing abstracts of literature related to the preservation and conservation of material cultural heritage. It has been managed and published by the Getty since 1983. AATA Online contains over 156,000 records and adds approximately 4,000 new records each year through regular updates. The database also includes selected subject-specific bibliographies produced as part of the Getty Conservation Institute’s own conservation and scientific research projects or as part of specific collaborative projects in which the Institute is involved.” 

AIC Conservation Wiki
“The AIC Wiki is sponsored by the American Institute for Conservation with content created by the various AIC Specialty Groups, Networks and Committees. Several of the Specialty Groups had “AIC Conservation Catalogs,” compendia of working knowledge on materials and techniques used to preserve and treat works of art and historic artifacts. The series, begun in 1985 in print format and still in active development, was intended to be updated on an ongoing basis as techniques, technologies, and modes of practice evolve. Placing this content on the AIC wiki platform allows for easy and timely collaborative editing and also provide much broader access to these resources, ensuring that innovative methods and materials are documented and widely disseminated to practicing conservators and conservation scientists.” Note also the Table of Materials Testing Results compiled by institutions conducting testing on the short and long term use of materials for storage and display.  

BCIN (Bibliographic Database of the Conservation Information Network)
“Available online since 1987, BCIN is a trusted resource for professionals, museums and other heritage organizations. It now contains nearly 200,000 citations, including the first 34 volumes of the Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts (AATA), published between 1955 and 1997.”  

CAMEO (Conservation & Art Materials Encyclopedia Online)
“CAMEO is a database that compiles, defines, and disseminates technical information on the distinct collection of terms, materials, and techniques used in the fields of art conservation and historic preservation. First developed as a materials database in 1997 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston it has expanded with the cooperation of multiple institutions to include several reference collections” This includes the Fiber Reference Image Library, the Uemura Dye Archive, Asian Textile Database, and Forbes Pigment Database. 

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)
“CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species.”  

CoOL (Conservation OnLine)
“Conservation OnLine (CoOL) is a freely accessible platform to generate and disseminate vital resources for those working to preserve cultural heritage worldwide. Through the support of the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation, CoOL is committed to growing and sustaining these resources into the future. As an authoritative and trusted source of information, CoOL serves to foster, convene, and promote collaboration. 


 Updated on 22 November 2021