I know, Agents of Decay sounds like an epic punk band or a comic book supervillain gang, but it’s actually a concise list of the different ways things deteriorate. In 1994, Charlie Costain of the Canadian Conservation Institute created the original list of nine agents and coined the phrase “agents of decay” to summarize the forces behind object damage. The next year, conservator Robert Waller added the final agent, making it an even 10. After 25 years, this list remains a linchpin of conservation theory.
You see, it is vital that a conservator first understands the problem before fixing it. We spend as much time learning about damage pathways in school as we do in addressing the problems. The agents range from everyday environmental issues to unlikely, but devastating, events. It’s important to remember, and you’ll see it as we go through the list, that often these agents work together. Conservators have two methods of combating damage. The first is preventive conservation, which focuses on manipulating the environment around the object to prevent or mitigate possible damage. The second is interventive conservation. This is a response to the damage and involves treating the object in order to stabilize it.