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Cultural Encounters and Explorations

Research Cluster Discussion: 24 June - 3 July 2009 - Preservation, Use and Reuse of Conservation Documentation and Data

Posted on behalf of Jessica Johnson:

One topic I’ve not yet seen addressed to a great extent in these threads is the importance of preservation of the documentation in all these ideas: the choices that lead to more access, the changes that occur in the access, the knowledge that accrues from the access, and how to manage that documentation so that that knowledge is available in the future as well. A couple of disparate thoughts on these ideas are below:

1. It’s wonderful that there are instruments that can identify change at more and more minute levels - but if we can’t use that data in some way in the future it quickly becomes useless - and could be seen as a waste of precious resources.  And really isn’t doing any documenting in the long run.  Maintenance of data needs to be built into the decision to do this kind of analysis.

2. If an indigenous artist recarves a mask and dances that mask, there is the value to the artist and the community that comes from having that item there.  If you are the lucky conservator you’ll get to be a part of that situation.  There is another value that comes from documenting that use so that someone not in the room comes to understand what that use meant to the community.  That value has little to do with the object, and a lot to do with mutual cultural understanding and respect - the indigeous people  respecting the desire and need of people outside the community to have some view into what an item means to them.  And the respect of the documentor to only record and deposit information that the indigenous person/community agrees to.

3. The decision-making process for all kinds of access needs to become a regular part of conservation documentation.  The reasons we are now choosing to allow more access have a lot to do with societal ideas and pressures.  Those ideas will change over time.  Though people in the future, be they conservators, other heritage professionals, individuals from stakeholder communities, or anywhere else may not agree with the choices we make now, but if we record our reasoning - at least they will understand why we made the choices - for individual objects and for collections, for society and for ourselves.

Research Cluster Discussion: 24 June - 3 July 2009 - Position Statement 3 - Dean Sully


Heritage spaces, places and objects can be viewed as a palimpsest of human
interaction. These objects are valued because of the impact they have on
peoples lives. The process of heritagification brings the danger of
rupturing the social networks that made the object valuable. This process
tends to disconnect objects from the present and situate them in an imagined
past, essentialised in the timeless existence of the object as unchanging

Heritage professionals have used this device to institute new frameworks of
meaning, function, expectation and caring for heritage objects, which
primarily reflect the needs of the heritage institution. The conserved
object is necessarily an edited version of all the interactions that link
the current state of the object with its past states. The editing tools we
use to do this seem to me skewed by the artifice of the timelessness of
heritage objects. Many practices in conservation are based on such fixed
ideas, for example, the concepts minimum intervention and reversibility,
which tend to define the impact of contemporary practice as valueless and
define pre-heritage practice as valuable as part of the object’s story. This
provides a conceptual problem in seeking to understand object condition as a
fixed point of reference rather than as part of an ongoing continuum. By
acknowledging that the life story of an object continues beyond its
inscription as heritage, we can attempt to reject the ‘timelessness’ of
heritage spaces, places and objects, essentialised in a created past that
is distant from the present.

The concept of conservation as the ‘management of change’ affects how we
understand the heritage object in relation to its changing condition,
meaning, use, expectation and significance. Museums and heritage
institutions can provide new opportunities to develop reciprocal
relationships between the things they possess and the people who value those
things. This becomes a device to reconnect an object’s present with its past
and provide new opportunities to engage people with objects.
It allows us to reject artificial distinctions between ‘museum’ dirt and
‘original’ dirt, between ‘old damage’ and ‘cumulative damage’. This ‘glass
half full’ view of object change allows the object to accrue new meanings
and values as heritage objects, rather than artificially fixing this as
degeneration from some imagined ‘original’ state.

This provides an opportunity to focus the conservation process in relation
to needs of people rather than on a static idea of the heritage object.

So my questions are:

  • In balancing the needs of objects with the needs of people how can we assessthe social benefit of physical encounters?
  • Is this worth the risk to the long term survival of our heritage spaces, places and objects?

Dean Sully

Research Cluster Discussion: 24 June - 3 July 2009 - Position Statement 2 - Jonathan Ashley-Smith


If it is true that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ then each time someone touches an object they leave something of themselves behind and take away some part of the object.  So the object is slowly growing, shrinking or changing its composition as the number of contacts increases. The rates of these changes have not been scientifically measured, so it is not possible to make estimates of future loss and damage if policies on handling should change. The risk of damage through handling needs to be compared to the damage from other environmental factors, fingerprints may actually slow down rates of corrosion.

Sensitive scientific instruments could measure the small chemical or morphological surface changes that may take place after a small number of encounters. It might be possible to determine just perceptible levels of change by analogy with damage to light sensitive objects. It would then be possible to think about acceptable rates of change, which could be used to guide  practice in museums and historic sites.

So the questions are:

  • What analysis techniques might be applicable?
  • Has any of this work actually been done already?
  • What controlled experiments would give results that were meaningful in the real world?
  • Is the idea of ‘acceptable rates of change though handling’ acceptable?

Jonathan Ashley-Smith

Research Cluster Discussion: 24 June - 3 July 2009 - Position Statement 1 - Elizabeth Pye

Welcome to the blog for Cultural Encounters and Explorations: Conservation’s ‘Catch 22′.  To begin, Liz Pye has forwarded the following position statement.  We look forward to your responses!  Please feel free to question and extend the discussion!

We have defined conservation’s ‘Catch 22′ as:

Access to heritage objects brings social benefit
Greater access brings greater social benefit
Greater access brings greater damage
Greater damage brings reduced social benefit

BUT our everyday experience of the world is MULTIsensory. We touch things in our surroundings all the time.

For many people being able to touch makes objects accessible in a way that they are not when they are simply viewed, or described.

My view is that we (conservators and curators) are too risk averse, and  we should  make it much more possible to touch and handle objects.

With hundreds of objects in store,  we should be prepared to select and use many more objects for handling, and accept some damage as a feature of responsible stewardship.

I am very keen to have your views!

Liz Pye

Cultural Encounters and Explorations: Conservation’s ‘Catch-22’ is a research cluster of the AHRC EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme. It aims to examine the tension between conservation and access in order to develop a clearer understanding of the consequences of physical access on the condition of objects, and to shape future conservation policies and practice.