The term "folk art" covers a large variety of objects, including those made with conventional materials such as oil paint, ceramics, and stone, and unconventional materials such as animal bones and aluminum foil. As a result, folk art problems of care and preservation also vary widely.

The "Look" of Folk Art

Early collecting of folk art focused on utilitarian objects that had been abandoned by their users, so the appearance desired by collectors was different from the way the objects were intended to look when they were made. Since such collectors often liked an aged and even somewhat damaged look, planning for conservation treatment of these objects must be done thoughtfully in order that the value of the objects can be preserved. More recent folk art, such as that done by outsider artists, is often regarded as art from the beginning, so appropriate treatment is usually to try to preserve the artists' intent. The conservator of folk art must therefore be particularly sensitive to the preferences of the owner and the standards of the marketplace.

Dealing with Conservators

When owners of folk art deal with conservators, the conservator should initiate a discussion on this subject. Otherwise, owners must reveal their preferences. Although ethical conservators have limits about what they will alter by treatment - they will not, for example, discard an original part of an object or change the color of a part of it - there is a wide range of ethical approaches to treatment. The impact of condition on the appearance of objects can only be seen wtih a direct viewing - a photograph is no substitute. Owners of folk art can therefore contribute useful information to the treatment decision-making process by being aware of the differences in appearances of objects they see in museum exhibitions or in other people's collections, and deciding what the differences mean to them.

Inspection and Documentation

In other ways, the care and preservation of folk art is little different from that of other categories of collections. Owners should inspect their objects carefully, and keep photographic and written records of their condition as well as documents related to each object's history. The records should help owners decide if and when the condition of an object has changed. Inspection should be done periodically for this purpose, and if changes are noted, a conservator should be contacted. Conservators can provide useful information on objects and their care as well as on recommended treatments and costs. It is often useful to have a conservator inspect objects that are being considered for purchase to avoid hidden costs in the future.

Environmental Effects

Textiles and paper are probably the types of objects most subject to deterioration from poor mounting and framing methods and from inappropriate environments. It is therefore particularly important to have these objects looked at by a conservator who can recommend practical ways to limit environmental damage.

Light, particularly daylight, fades colors and contributes to the deterioration of organic materials, notably paper and textiles. If light-sensitive objects are displayed near windows, a great deal of damage can be avoided by blocking the light with shades or curtains during the day when no one is in the room. Again, conservators can help by, fo rexample, making sure that light-filtering glazing is used in framing.

Different kinds of objects respond differently to temperature and relative humidity. Painted wooden objects are particularly sensitive to flaking in late fall when the heat comes on and the humidity drops, so this is a good time of the year for owners to inspect such pieces. Metals, on the other hand, corrode in high relative humidity, so problems with rusting of iron or tarnishing of silver are more likely in summer.

Many objects displayed in homes are damaged by careless handling, during dusting of surfaces, and by children and pets. Much of this can be avoided by careful placement of objects, and by making sure that unsteady objects are mounted to stabilize them.

For the name of a conservator in your area, contact the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC).

sources: myself, and Barbara Appelbaum. Node your homework.