When Howard Carter opened Tutenkhamun’s tomb in 1922 he found artifacts that had not changed in over 3000 years. They were not faded, warped, stained or corroded; the materials had remained stable because they were in a stable environment. Once they were removed from the tomb, things began to happen. Not because the Time was right, but because of interactions with light, moisture and pollutants. The problem is not Time, but what happens during the passage. The older something is, the more opportunities it has had to fall into an uncongenial environment; tucked away in a dark, dry burial chamber, with no visitors touching or breathing, a mass of earth buffering any change in temperature, change can stand still.
Of course, the ancient Egyptians had chosen their materials well. Some materials, especially some combinations of materials, are self-destructive. Iron has been refined from iron ore at a great cost of energy, and it longs to relax with a drink and some oxygen; this quickly leads to rust.
Many things were not designed to last. Birds replace their feathers annually; these delicate structures are critical to survival and are very easily damaged. And their colours fade. Better to grow new ones than risk falling (or the loss of a mate). Feathered artifacts are difficult to preserve forever because they were made with an expected lifespan of about twelve months.
Sometimes traditional associations of materials have masked their instability behind the labour of continual maintenance. However, constant cleaning and polishing diminishes an artifact little by little. And if it stops, the juxtaposition of incompatible materials shows.
Some materials are novel combinations of elements; if they suit the current application, few care what they will look like in 100 years.
Plastics have many desirable properties, but longevity is not high on the list; some of the earlier versions have already reached the limit of their stability. In the course of Time, perhaps all plastics will revert to their constituent parts.
Conservators cannot do very much about Inherent Vice. Artifacts can be stored without oxygen or at low temperatures, conditions where chemical reactions are slow; micro-environments can be created where conditions suit materials. But these solutions are expensive and they limit accessibility.
For most of the RBCM collections, Conservators try to control the environment in which artifacts exist, to eliminate or at least reduce the conditions that foster change. They try to keep light at a minimum.
They monitor the humidity and temperature so conditions can be changed if they become too wet or too dry.
They endeavour to keep insects and humans at bay.
Conservators know they can’t stop the flow of Time. All they can do to preserve artifacts is to minimize the opportunities for their destruction. Like the worst kind of parents they try to protect their charges by eliminating all experiences for fear that they may be damaging. If a Mummy’s Curse could shield artifacts from change, conservators would employ one in no time.