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Conservation and collections care are deeply affected by pressures to provide greater access to heritage objects for people now, but at the same time to make sure that objects survive for future users. This highlights a paradox which could be called conservation’s ‘Catch-22’:

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

Our lack of understanding of the nature of damage resulting from physical encounters with heritage objects has generated a precautionary response:  conservators seek to limit physical access (e.g. through handling, use, or loan).  This has effectively disconnected objects from people, so that objects are conserved for their own sake rather than for the impact that they may have on people’s lives. This has implications for the public value of heritage collections, and for our ability to enhance social benefit and sustain cultural relevance of objects and collections. The current strategy for providing access to collections through remote viewing or contact with digitised objects has implications for future policy and practice in the care of heritage objects. 

A public examination of this tension between conservation and access has the potential to provide a clearer understanding of the consequences of physical access on the condition of objects, and to shape future conservation policies and practice.  It will facilitate a re-examination of the conceptual boundaries that exist between the care of heritage objects and the use of objects for public benefit.

People interact with objects in many ways: children are encouraged to handle objects to bring the past to life; museum visitors are eager to see ‘the real thing’, artists are inspired.  Increasingly, encounters with objects are used as triggers for oral history, and are considered to have a  restorative function in reconnecting people with their pasts (cultural wellbeing), or in reaching people who are isolated through age, health, social exclusion or sensory impairment (therapeutic  wellbeing).  However, we know relatively little about the nature of any benefit that may be derived from these encounters, nor do we know enough about the effect on the heritage objects themselves. This has limited our ability to establish effective conservation strategies.

The purpose of this research cluster, therefore, was to explore the issues associated with physical encounters between people and objects.  Its focus was to examine our understanding of changes to the physical object, our ability to define and measure condition, our conception of deterioration and loss, and the implications for current and future use of collections. This was balanced by exploration of the social/cultural benefit gained from these encounters.  A further purpose was to explore the impact of remote encounters with dematerialised objects on the policy, practice and ethics of collections care and management. A key objective was that this research should have a transformative effect in developing future strategies for heritage conservation.

The debate was informed by current access and conservation policy and practice in selected museums and by exploration of different types of encounter with objects.  It also incorporated important work on understanding object encounters in other fields such as materials science, engineering, visual arts, medical sciences,  haptics and virtual technologies. It sought to focus research questions through the lens of conservation and achieve pragmatic outcomes for professionals caring for heritage collections.



  • to explore the nature of the paradox that increasing access may ultimately reduce access
  • to understand both the conceptual and practical risks and benefits of providing increased access to objects
  • to evaluate the effects on current collections-care policies and practice
  • provide a platform for future research


  • to understand the ways in which people interact with physical objects and the benefits (or otherwise) that result
  • to achieve a reassessment of the concept of condition and how changes in condition impact on the value of objects
  • to establish a clearer picture of how physical damage may be caused by contact with objects
  • to be familiar with the scientific techniques available to measure change in the physical condition of objects
  • to understand the impact that the use of digital objects and collections may have on future conservation policy and practice
  • to gain clearer understanding of the relative benefits and risks of interactions with objects
  • to define key topics for future research focused on physical encounters with objects

Page last modified on 23 feb 10 16:23