02/16/2011 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Preserving an Object and Its Story: Conservation 101

"All around us, the past is vanishing" reads a statement from Heritage Preservation: The National Institute for Conservation. On its website, the organization which works to preserve art and artifacts, informs that a gross neglect of collectibles is a conundrum that doesn't just affect the obvious suspects like the many bronze and marble statues decaying in town squares as a result of acid rain and other neglect. But that because of a lack of awareness and education about proper storage and the effects of temperature and light, affected also are family photos and heirlooms rotting away in garages and attics, as well as valuable books, paintings and prints housed in outdated repositories and private collections.

An appreciation for visual art tends to be a matter of the heart -- purchasing because one feels a direct connection to an object they deem special. Yet if one is to cherish a work of art for years to come, the process of long-term preservation can quickly become a tricky game.

In the first comprehensive study ever done, conducted in 2004-05, Heritage Preservation surveyed 30,000 organizations -- archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, research collections and archaeological repositories--finding that 29% of collecting institutions have no environmental controls to protect collections from the damaging effects of temperature, humidity and light, that 53% of all collecting institutions have had their collections damaged by moisture, and that 59% have had their collections damaged by light.

The figures are alarming on their own. But just imagine, if art institutions are having such a difficult time caring for their valuables, its very telling as to what private collectors and lay people are struggling to deal with; possibly explaining why some artwork can wind up simply getting lost.

Notwithstanding, awareness is on the rise, including services offered by the Intermuseum Conservation Association, headed by Albert Albano, a 30- year veteran in the field. The ICA is helping professionals and laypersons, where in some instances, advisory comes for free.

A lively and engaging conversationalist, Albano took a few moments to share part of his wealth of knowledge on conservation/preservation in a recent phone chat.

Hi Albert, could you give me some background information about ICA -- when and why was it formed?

The basic story is pretty straight forward. The ICA was the first not-for-profit art conservation center established in the US in 1952. It was set up by about a half dozen collecting institutions, because there were really no resources in the Midwest that were directly focused on issues and capabilities of conservation and preservation. That means doing hands on work as well as educational needs to essentially inform and train, and raise the bar of awareness of cultural material conservation and preservation. That was the mission. And [in part] our current mission reads: The Intermusem Conservation Association protects preserves and enriches the shared heritage of art and material culture through conservation, advocacy and education.

How long have you been doing this? A little about your own career in this field?

37 years, I started in 1975. I started in the Guggenheim Museum's internship program in 1976. My internship apprenticeship was in the conservation department. I then went to a conservation training school...the Cooperstown graduates program. After that I did a post-graduate internship at The Philadelphia Museum of Art; having 2 years of an Andrew Mellon fellowship and then hired on staff. Thereafter I became senior conservator at the Museum of Modern Art and then the director of conservation in the Henry Francis DuPont Wintertour museum and garden.

I've been the executive director of the ICA since 1996.

What are some of the most important aspects of conservation that all novices should know, especially artists?

Here's the thing, one of the ICA's premier education programs is AMIEN, which stands for art materials information education network. I and my co-founder, Mark Gottsegen, created it several years ago to fill a perceived and real void in artists being able to access and discuss information about both proprietary and non-proprietary materials that get used for art, in an open dialog forum with materials experts to get information that is accurate, understandable and current; to contextualize that information to what artists want to do in making their own art. It is completely unbiased. We do not have a product to sell. We are about information. AMIEN gets 15k to 20K users per month. Gottsegen manages the site.

The things that we focus on, all aspects, because we are completely comprehensive, are addressing the creative process, totally, holistically. For example, we are interested in the creative process from the beginning and then we completely close the circle by dealing with the preservation of those objects in perpetuity. We are focused on all of the issues surrounding the making of an object, and preservation, and everything in between.

So give an example of how this might be expressed in proper storage of art.

Fine art storage, not only does the ICA have one of the largest climate controlled fine art storage facilities between New York City and Chicago, we also make that resource available to institutions, the collecting community and artists for the long-term storage of collecting material. Why, because the single most important issue for cultural material [art] is a stable environment -- 24/7 in all seasons. Environmental management and environmental control is very important. We work with a diverse spectrum of material.

How Many employees do you have and please take a moment to speak to another particular to what ICA does?

With our 20 in-house employees, we are one of the only conservation/preservation centers in the US that has conservation expertise in all area of media specialization.

The other component of what we do is the educational. It bolsters and sustains our mission. It's not just about fixing the broken object. It's about understanding the holistic universe that surrounds this object. Who made it, what is it made of, how does it serve its function, and how is it now interpreted and presented to its current constituency.

How do you see yourself contributing to the overall cultural heritage experience?

My strongest commitment at this point in my accumulated experience is how it relates to the community -- how it relates to people outside of my professional universe. It's all about, ultimately, the communication of the object and its story to the community. Fundamentally, every object alters in one way or another over time and that alteration can sometimes substantially change the audiences' ability to understand the artist or fabricator's original intent. It is critical to understand the true intent, and only through the engagement of conservation/preservation expertise can that happen properly and therefore make that story the most comprehensible.