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(PDF of report)

Workshop 3: Physical Encounters: increased benefit or increased risk?

Tuesday 2 June 2009

The third workshop aimed to draw together the issues raised by the previous two workshops and looked toward the end of cluster conference.

Workshop 1 challenged ideas about condition and led to a consensus that condition is contextual, subjective and resistant to easy quantification.

Workshop 2 investigated the degrees of damage associated with different degrees of access. Concepts of condition were considered that define condition through rates of change that need to be managed. A degree of consensus formed around the instability of the concept of condition and the potential role of cultural significance as a reference point in focusing conservation decisions. This was seen to require a context-specific, decentred collaborative approach to decision making.

The third workshop considered whether the value of increased physical access to heritage objects is worth the perceived or actual risk to the long-term conservation of collections. We reviewed our ability to assess the results of these encounters, and explored the implications for conservation strategies which focus on limiting physical damage. We considered the impact of increasing access through haptic technologies and virtual representations and the consequences of the dematerialisation of objects and collections for the value and use of the physical collections.

The presentations were grouped to consider what we are conserving and for whom. The experience of artists, who seek to engage with museum collections in ways that challenge established norms, revealed the possibilities of worlds outside conventional Eurocentric frameworks (George Nuku, Rosanna Raymonds). This warned of the way that these ‘different worlds’ can potentially collide during interactions within the museum. This emphasised the need to nurture and sustain long-term relationships with the museum’s communities.

The question of access was considered as a spectrum of different forms of engagement. This includes representations of objects published and widely accessible through web sites. It involves large numbers of visitors gaining access to public spaces, buildings and exhibitions. It also involves formalised intimate access to individual researchers and small groups through handling sessions. Un-authored access to stored collections also provides a less mediated form of access. Different strategies are required in these differing circumstances.

Increased access often means increased accountability, as it is more difficult to hide away embarrassing problems. The physical limitations of buildings designed with limited expectations of public engagement do have implications for restricting physical access. The physical presence of objects in collections provides the opportunity to reinvent and re-imagine uses for collections. Decisions based on the perceived redundancy of collections in one age are likely to be reinterpreted later.

The response by museum professionals to projects involving more intimate levels of physical access to collections through handling, was discussed (Jill Barnard, Fleur Shearman). We were able to see, from the perspective of conservators, what conservation responses are required in order to deal with the challenges of intimate physical encounters.

This suggested that the more conservators work to provide access through creative conservation techniques, the more their input is sought and accepted more broadly within heritage institutions. In addition we were able to see the power of objects in creating a sense of understanding as a vehicle for transmitting knowledge about cultures (Graeme Were, Mark Nesbitt).

We looked at the way that using collections can be driven within broader social policy agendas at local, national and international levels. This provides a role for collections and conservation as a social resource to be developed for purposes beyond conventional museum collections (Bryn Hyacinth, Helen Ganiaris). The quality of the individual experiences of those involved in conservation and collections engagement programmes can be clearly demonstrated. The cost benefit compared with other museum activities (such as conventional exhibitions) is, however, more difficult to justify.

Online databases are seen as a useful addition to physical access and are likely to increase the need for physical access rather than reducing it. The decoupling of the database from the physical object allows the benefit of greater access without the associated greater damage. Digital collections allow the possibility of widening the gap between objects and their physical representations (Dinah Eastop). The formation of digital collections has been used as a way of removing the physical object from the issue surrounding ownership. The ability of the dematerialised object to have a completely different trajectory from a ‘real’ object potentially undermines the paradox outlined in Conservation’s Catch-22.

An assumption upon which Conservation’s Catch-22 is based is that conservators are cautious or risk-averse and adopt a precautionary response to situations where there is insufficient information (e.g. the Sandford Principle). We learned that the National Trust has identified clear goals (including conservation priorities) for the whole organisation. These are aimed at achieving a level of 75 % of visitors rating their experience as ‘very good’(Katy Lithgow). Conservation can increase enjoyment rather than just facilitate access by presenting the process of conservation as part of the visitor experience. The development of new types of experience such as the ‘Atmospheres Project’ actively involves conservation in achieving these clear institutional aims. New skills in public relations may be needed to retool conservators to focus on the quality of visitor experience rather than the stability of their collections. It was noted that one development had been a clear acceptance that engagement is a core part of the job of a conservator and can no longer be considered as an optional extra (Andrew Calver). There was however some concern that public engagement was a ‘fashion’ within institutions and as such is ephemeral and liable to change in the near future

Hard evidence is needed to convince heritage managers of the benefits of this kind of engagement. In shared decision making, conservators have a role along with other colleagues, however there was the feeling that ‘conservation’ had often been used and mis-used by other heritage professionals as a way of denying access for non conservation reasons. We were able to see how we can we measure (quantitatively and qualitatively) the value of object interactions within a therapeutic handling project with hospital patients (Helen Chatterjee). This is has great potential in providing policy makers with data about the tangible benefits of the engagement with heritage objects. It is also apparent that there are real political questions about the production of data about the benefits of physical encounters


It is an important part of the dialogue, to be able to listen. Workshop 3 provided a range of different voices talking about their experience of encountering objects, and also talking about their experience of encountering conservators. For conservators this is not always a pleasant experience, but it is necessary in order for us to be able to formulate an effective response.

One strong idea that developed was that of the reciprocity of care; in caring for something, you are cared for by it. This has relevance to the benefits that people get from encounters with objects, and the reciprocal benefit that objects receive from people responsible for their care. Objects are conserved because they are valued for the effect that they have on people.

The role of consultation and shared decision making requires a responsive approach in which some of the underlying principles and assumptions of conservation can create conflict and reduce understanding. Decentred decision making based on effective consultation can lead to more appropriate action; it can also, however, result in a degree of uncertainty between different parties in the process.

A difficulty in sharing the decision-making process with others lies in the ability to achieve an effective consensus. This is often seen as a lack of agreement in the community view. It was pointed out that a similar lack of consensus was being expressed by the conservation professionals in the workshop.

As conservators we cannot be responsible (and cannot take the blame) for everything that happens to museum objects.

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