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Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas, and Uncomfortable Truths - a summary

Alison Bracker
Royal Academy of Arts

Alison Richmond
Deputy Head, RCA/V&A Conservation Postgraduate Programme

Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas, and Uncomfortable Truths, brings together critical thinking from a variety of areas of practice.1 It embraces the diverse aspects within and outside conservation in order to provoke the cross-fertilisation of ideas from one sphere to another. Its contributors, who come from the fields of philosophy, sociology, history, art and design history, museology, conservation practice and theory, architecture, and planning and public policy, address a wide range of conservation theories, ethics and principles in ways that encourage the reader to compare and contrast across specialist areas. But while their contributions offer many opportunities for comparison, it is not a textbook, nor is it comprehensive. Instead, its chapters invoke and stand alongside the current body of knowledge, complement it, and aim to prompt further debate among conservation professionals, museum and heritage professionals, art and cultural historians, lecturers and students, and others invested in cultural heritage theories and practices.

Figure 1. Sarah Sze, 'Things Fall Apart', 2001, mixed media installation with vehicle. Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund. ©Sarah Sze (Photo reproduced with permission from Frank Oudeman)

Figure 1. Sarah Sze, 'Things Fall Apart', 2001, mixed media installation with vehicle. Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund. ©Sarah Sze (Photo reproduced with permission from Frank Oudeman)

Conservation is currently re-evaluating itself in relation to society and acknowledging both its role in assigning and perpetuating cultural value, and its need for greater dialogue outside of the profession. Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas, and Uncomfortable Truths captures thinking at a time when large fluctuations are happening within conservation theory, including the philosophical shift from scientific objective materials-based conservation to the recognition that conservation is a socially constructed activity with numerous public stakeholders. Its chapters offer snapshots of how conservation narratives and ethics are being reconsidered, reinterpreted, and reconfigured in this first decade of the twenty-first century through essays that evince how conservators and others concerned with the production and consumption of cultural heritage understand, internalise, and respond to the ways in which contemporary developments within and beyond the field of conservation are challenging traditional ethics and practice. Though the chapters are highly varied in their scope, focus, and methodology, they all expose the uncomfortable truth of the impossibility of singular and objective truths within cultural heritage care and management. By tracing the agencies and agendas that once drove, or drive today, the development of principles in conservation and its specialised disciplines (Jonathan Ashley-Smith; Nicholas Stanley-Price; Jukka Jokilehto), moments in history (Cathleen Hoeniger), countries and communities (Zuzana Bauerova; Catherine Smith and Marcelle Scott; Marion Kaminitz and Richard West), and new art media (Tina Fiske; Jill Sterrett; Glenn Wharton and Harvey Molotch); scrutinising conservation's aims and whether they can be reconciled with future developments (Chris Caple); unpacking the factors through which cultural value is ascribed at any given time (Helen Clifford; Isabelle Brajer; Miriam Clavir); identifying and interrogating the social constructs, processes, and needs with which conservation must engage (Simon Cane; Elizabeth Pye; Dinah Eastop; Erica Avrami); and critically analysing the very precepts of conservation ethics (Jonathan Kemp; Jonathan Rée; Salvador Muños Viñas), the authors wrestle with and offer ways of disentangling the ethical dilemmas confronting those who maintain and sustain cultural heritage for today and tomorrow.


1. Richmond and Bracker, eds. Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas, and Uncomfortable Truths (Oxford, 2009)

Autumn 2009 Issue 58 special edition