Museums & Galleries Qld

Geraldine Mate blogs from her International Fellowship at the California State Railroad Museum about the big decisions on conservation and restoration

Posted on: 11 October 2012

Conservation and Restoration

When it comes to decisions about conservation and restoration, the approach seems to be that it’s better to be canny and careful and not rush into things. Like most places, in the US it appears that there are some diverse views on how objects should be presented and what constitutes an appropriate degree of intervention.

Last week I talked about the drive to improve the care of big things, rolling stock in particular, by ensuring it is at least under cover and where feasible in a controlled environment. Once you have the rolling stock inside, the next question becomes how do you care for it – do you stabilise and conserve, cosmetically restore, or return to operating condition, with all the alterations from original that might entail? There is plenty of scope for a range of decisions to be made and it’s not always black and white – there is any numbers of positions between stabilisation and full restoration.  And these decisions are equally as difficult whether it be for a locomotive, an aeroplane, a boat or a building.

The discussion about restoration seems to centre on two things – intent and methodology. Under the banner of intent is authenticity in restoration – understanding what’s been done to historic objects in the past (sometimes not so good), and thinking through the decision – when to restore and when to conserve. People here have been asking questions like “What are you trying to show an audience?”, “What is significant about the object?” and “Does this have some bearing on how and why you conserve, restore or operate?” In thinking about how restoration proceeds, people are giving attention to details such as authentic colour, configuration, materials and traditional methods. Restoration is often to a specific era, not always “as it came off the line”. But whichever “era” you choose, the decision to restore begs the question of whether, if it’s not stabilised in the current condition and configuration, then are you not erasing some of the history?

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Another challenge is what can be considered authentic – is a building or carriage that only has original foundations really a restored object or a reconstruction/reproduction. Is it like Grandad’s axe with four new heads and seven new handles, effectively a facsimile of the original object? And does that matter? Sometimes it may be that this is the only way that we can hope to see what a unique carriage would have looked like. But in every reconstruction, we make decisions today that take liberties with originality.

I don’t know what the answer to this dilemma is. In a number of places I’ve visited the approach has been meticulous research on the history of the object; attention to the technology, fabric and material changes to the object; the use of traditional methods, especially in building restoration; careful documentation of every step of the process; and clear delineation between original and new/replacement parts. There are a number of on-line resources museums here go that, while not specifically related to transport objects, are very useful and these include: and

In some places, rolling stock is being presented in original conditions. Which leads to another question, especially in the environment of limited funding where priorities have to be assigned to restoration, which is: when is it ok not to restore? Personally, I sometimes feel that the original condition, with stabilisation to ensure the longevity of the object, gives a feeling of authenticity that no degree of restoration can match. However, it is as much the experience of hearing steam, feeling a loco move, smelling the fuel, and seeing the grandeur of a shiny loco that contributes to people’s engagement with the stories, technologies and significance of big things. So many people marvel over the real thing and it’s clear that the capacity to achieve that awe and wonder, the appreciation of the “romance” of transport in the past, is important. This was made abundantly clear this week at the California State Railroad Museum where they marked the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Union Pacific railroad. The large event included train rides in historical carriages, opportunities to climb into locos and an array of beautifully restored rolling stock out on public display. The crowds were phenomenal, the excitement of little kids marvellous to see, and there was a depth of engagement for many visitors. I also visited a live steam event at Railtown 1897 this week, and the enjoyment of the physical experience of an operating steam railway was palpable amongst visitors. These two events were a timely reminder of the wonder big things can induce.

So what is the answer? I don’t know, but it seems like to be canny and careful, understand your object, its history and significance, to carefully adhere to conservation standards including documentation, and identification, reversible changes and so on and to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve in the conservation/restoration, what your objectives are, all important facets in a well-considered decision.


GERALDINE MATE is the Senior Curator, Transport and Energy at The Workshops Rail Museum, Ipswich, a campus of the Queensland Museum.

M&GSQ’s 2012 Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program is funded by Arts Queensland through the Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF). RADF is a joint Queensland Government and Local Government partnership to support local arts and culture.

See M&GSQ’s website, for more information about the Mentorship, Exchange and Fellowship Program.


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