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The Philosophical Benefits of Access: Musings on Physical Encounters with Heritage Objects

Chiara Ambrosio



Chiara Ambrosio, Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London


Can philosophy cast some light on any of the issues arising from physical encounters with heritage objects? In this paper I investigate the tension between conservation and access in light of some concepts from the philosophy of science and suggest common pathways of enquiry for philosophers and conservators. As an academic trained mainly in philosophy of science and philosophy of language, I will limit my contribution to some theoretical and methodological considerations which may be relevant to the theme of this conference. 


Despite its eminently practical groundings, the field of conservation is implicitly informed by a number of interesting philosophical assumptions. Such assumptions become paramount when conservators have to face apparently irreconcilable pressures ranging from professional responsibilities and theoretical commitments to policy implementation and good practice. Physical encounters with heritage objects are a case in point. In this paper I will explore issues of meaning arising from access to heritage objects and conceptions of 'the public' (or 'the publics'?) that implicitly or explicitly inform conservation and affect access. In relating these questions to the papers presented in the first section of the conference, I will point out common themes which I hope may turn useful to practitioners in shaping their interactions with heritage objects.  

Conservation revolves around objects and meanings. Access to heritage objects, in turn, seems to hinge on a conception of shared objects and shared meanings. Here the philosopher of science might intervene with a caveat and appeal to the concept of incommensurability, which was first proposed by Thomas S. Kuhn in his 1962 work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions


Kuhn is among the proponents of the 'historical turn' in philosophy of science, which emerged as a reaction to positivistic accounts of science. The proponents of the historical turn placed central emphasis on the historical development of scientific theories, methods and practices rather than trying to reconstruct them in purely logical terms. The concept of incommensurability emerged as a consequence of the renewed attention that philosophers of science paid to the history of science.
According to Kuhn, scientists working within historically subsequent theories 'practice their trades in different worlds', and “see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction”  (Kuhn 1970, 150). In his view, a close inspection of the history of science shows that scientific change entails a change of standards, meanings and phenomena, so that there seems to be no common measure between past and present scientific theories. Incommensurability - a term that Kuhn borrowed from mathematics - refers to such a lack of common measure. A notorious example used by Kuhn is the term 'planet', which refers to the sun but not the earth in Ptolemaic theory, whereas it refers to the earth but not the sun in Copernican theory. Similarly, terms such as 'mass', 'element' or 'compound' strictly depend on the theories in which they are used (Kuhn 1970, 200-201).


The semantic aspects of incommensurability might directly affect the practice of conservation. Incommensurability marks the divide between the conservator’s/collector’s perception of heritage objects and their history, use and development in an original context. This seems remarkably close to some of the interpretative problems that Susan Pearce stressed in her paper 'It’s all Greek to me! Reflections on some issues relating to classical marbles'. A concept of semantic incommensurability seems to underpin her thought-provoking considerations on the re-interpretability of objects depending on what is wanted by conservators, collectors and the public at a certain time in history and on how different these may be from the original meaning and use of those objects. 


Yet, it is by virtue of those chains of interpretations, prompted by objects themselves, that conservators have access to the past. Should the conservator surrender to the problem of incommensurability and accept it as a matter of fact? The practice of conservation stands as a continuous - albeit imperfect - effort to fill in the gap that separates the present from the past. The conservator acts as a translator, and the very act of translating cultural practices and the objects around which such practices revolve does bring new understanding, despite the obstacles posed by semantic incommensurability.  Kuhn himself resorted to the metaphor of translation in an attempt to clarify that incommensurability does not necessarily prevent understanding:

'However incomprehensible the new theory may be to the proponents of tradition, the exhibit of impressive concrete results will persuade at least a few of them that they must discover how such results are achieved. For that purpose, they must learn to translate, perhaps by treating already published papers as a Rosetta stone or…by visiting the innovator, talking with him, watching him or his students at work.

Those exposures may not result in the adoption of the theory; some advocates of the tradition may return home and attempt to adjust the old theory to produce equivalent results. But others, if the new theory is to survive, will find that at some point in the language-learning process they have ceased to translate and begun instead to speak the language like a native.' (Kuhn 1977, 339)


The contemporary tendency to make collections available to the public through hands-on exhibitions and physical encounters with heritage objects extends and enriches this process of translation. Physical contact with objects brings about an increased level of understanding (despite the possibility of translation failure!) which is no longer a prerogative of a restricted number of experts. A clear instance of this are all those initiatives that involve local communities and incorporate traditional methodologies for handling, documentation and preservation of heritage objects. And even when 'the public' is not composed of members of local communities, the possibility of handling objects grants a multi-sensorial experience once only allowed to conservators. Under the guidance of experts, the public becomes integral part of the process of gaining an increased awareness and understanding of its cultural past.

There are a number of ways in which access appears to be desirable for the purpose of sharing meanings. For one thing, object manipulation allows novel forms of understanding that are far richer than those based on the sole use of sight, as Paul Sullivan insightfully demonstrated in his paper 'Feeling our way: towards a shared approach to object handling in the public galleries'. Moreover, physical encounters under the guidance of experts seem to bring out what Kuhn, following the philosopher Michael Polanyi, called the 'tacit aspect' of knowledge (Polanyi 1958). In philosophy of science, this refers to all the unspoken assumptions that inform daily scientific practice and that are absorbed by observing and doing. I believe that the concept can be successfully applied to the field of conservation: increased access in the form of physical contact with heritage objects is a form of learning by observing experts and reenacting their interactions with collections.  

Chiara Ambrosio (Discussion)

This has important consequences upon what Elizabeth Pye has described as 'The Challenge of Conservation’s Catch 22' - the idea that greater access increases social benefit and at the same time paradoxically decreases it, because of the risk of damage. Emphasising and enhancing the tacit dimension of knowledge may be a way of overcoming the challenge of conservation’s catch 22. Physical access to collections is an act of trust toward the public and its cognitive capacities; thus, an increased awareness that members of the public will be 'tacitly learning' how to handle objects from conservators might disclose greater long term benefits and even reduce the risks of damage. 


The Museum of Reaning 'Outside the Box' project, presented by Julie Shelley and Stuart Kennedy, seems to be a step in this direction. In their paper 'A Right versus a Right. Balancing two sections of the museum code of ethics: A question of trust?', they give useful practical recommendations on how to entrust the public with objects and at the same time minimise the risk of damage. In their description, the ways in which objects are packaged in 'memory boxes' appears to invite the public to handle them in a certain way. This seems to incorporate 'tacit' aspects of conservation deriving from the direct experience of the conservator, along with what is explicitly formulated in codes of practice. 


So far, I have referred to 'the public' as a homogeneous, undifferentiated entity. This is obviously too simplistic. Conservators seem to work under the assumption that collections are ultimately for the public, but they also often seem to privilege objects at the expense of people. The very concept of shared meanings revolves around the public and should not invest exclusively the conservator and his/her attempt to understand the past.


In this respect, it seems to me that the way in which the issue of damage has been traditionally framed purports a misleading conception of 'the public'. Assuming, for instance, that greater access will bring greater damage seems to nourish a passive view of the public as uneducated and incapable of understanding and respecting its past. This, eventually, does result in greater damage – to collections as well as people. Conversely, a contextual approach tailored around the needs and expectations of different social, cultural and intellectual groups conveys a sense of trust and promotes responsibility. A first step to overcome the challenge of conservation’s catch 22 would thus be to question the preconceived ideas that conservators may have about 'the public' and re-frame the issue of access as a process of negotiation around collections involving experts and their diversified audiences. 


The new policies and initiatives involving physical encounters with heritage objects seem to hinge at least implicitly on a dynamic exchange between conservators and their audiences. It is however vital that such an active conception of the public becomes a central concern (as opposed to an implicit assumption) in the practice of conservation. A number of initiatives presented in the course of this conference seem to be heading in this direction. Ben Cowell’s overview of the National Trust’s 'Treasure Forever' and 'Atmosphere' projects offers two illuminating examples of active engagement with heritage collections in which the clear-cut separation between audiences and experts seems to fade. 'Meet the antiquities' at the Fitzwilliam Museum, presented by Helen Strudwick and Julie Dawson, is another example in which objects themselves become the common ground for an informed discussion between experts and members of the public. In both cases, the public is entrusted with (at least) partial expertise rather than inbued with historical notions that will be easily forgotten.

On a conclusive note, I would like to make some methodological remarks on the variety of approaches that informed this conference. The diverse viewpoints from which the issue of handling objects has been tackled suggest that conservation is an inherently pluralistic field. Different methods, practices and assumptions about the public are indeed desirable for the purpose of generating novel knowledge about the past and to fill the gap that separates it from the present. This diversity may often take the form of dialectic clash among the proponents of  alternative methodologies, but from a practical viewpoint it endowes the field and its publics with choice. This is perhaps an important lesson that the philosopher – often too focused on his normative effort to prescribe good methods and practices – should learn from the conservator.


Bibliographical References

Kuhn, T.S., 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (2nd ed.).

Kuhn, T.S., 1977. 'Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice' in: The Essential Tension. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Polanyi, M., 1958. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.    




Page last modified on 11 nov 09 12:48