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A question of principle

Nick Umney
Senior Conservator, Furniture & Woodwork Section, Conservation Department

The views in this article were either expressed during, or provoked by, a Conference and Workshop on the 'Principles of Rational Restoration and Conservation Decision Making' held at the Warburg Institute in June 1992 with Dr Susan Wilsmore, of the University of Hertfordshire, as sole lecturer and referee. A review of the proceedings appears in Paper Conservation News No 63 September 1992.

Conservation treatments of apparently similar problems vary considerably.

We read in issue 4 of this journal that 'Whereas in restoring a painting it may be considered appropriate to fill and texture every loss carefully, in furniture conservation it is considered better to leave more evidence of damage as an indication of an object's history.'1 For paintings we may prefer to emphasise aesthetic criteria whereas for furniture it seems we prefer to advance the cause of history. Differences also occur as to whether repairs should be carried out with original materials or modern substitutes and with regard to the removal of discoloured surface coatings.

What, if any, is the relevance of these differences?

It is not clear whether these differences reflect fundamental disagreement or result from the application of one set of principles to different complex situations. However, there are good reasons why we should be able to explain the principles underlying our decisions.

We have responsibility to the public to educate and inform it about the work of conservators, the standards we adopt and the reasons for them. Wrong restorations and wrong decisions about priorities for care of objects are wasteful of resources. Education and enjoyment on the one hand and safekeeping of objects on the other imply different ends and the possibility of conflicting principles being adopted in gaining these ends. The discussion of principles is therefore relevant throughout the management structure of the Museum. The Copyright Act (1988) makes it illegal to distort or mutilate the work of an artist in his lifetime. What then will count as the distortion or mutilation of an object?

Can our principles be stated, has this been attempted and with what result?

The United Kingdom Institute for Conservation (UKIC) has produced a code of practice the purpose of which is to regulate conduct, that is to provide rules. For these rules to be useful, it must be clear what conduct would count as going against them.

According to the UKIC, 'Conservation is the means by which the true nature of an object is preserved'. The 'true nature of the object' is central to the whole code of practice but is not satisfactorily explained. The explanation given begins by considering the physical nature of the object presumably in the belief that a neutral and testable description will make more objective and clear what is essentially a value judgement. Emphasis on the physical and testable is then abandoned in a line which reads 'Subsequent modifications may be of such a significant nature that they too should be preserved'. Explanation of what would count as 'significant' is not given. Also, we are entreated by the code to '...adhere to the highest and most exacting standard of treatment...' but the way in which this should be judged is not stated.

These and other criticisms of the UKIC code have been made by Susan Wilsmore. Conservators may not agree with everything she has to say, but a good code of practice should be defendable in terms that she, as a philosopher, would accept. It might be argued that the rules have to be vague or empty of particular content in order to apply in complex situations, but this has the opposite effect to that intended.

What if anything should be done about this situation?

If we accept these criticisms we have a duty to act, though we should be wary of creating purely institutional codes of practice. We should inform our professional body, the UKIC, of our concerns and seek the creation of fora for discussion of the many issues that need to be addressed.

What professional ethics are to be adopted?

Do we believe that ethics are objective and can be calculated? Would we then balance harms and benefits or should we prohibit harmful interventions and concentrate on prevention and stabilisation? If not objectively, how is it possible to have rational discussion?

What should be considered our duties towards objects?

What values do we attach to objects? How does what we do threaten to change or interfere with these values? What is the difference between intervening in the object in order to preserve it even though this intervention could distort its character and intervening in order to distort its character? Are positive rights to be assigned to objects as recommended by James Beck in his Bill of Rights for a Work of Art? Are the problems to be discussed only those of interventionist behaviour?

How should we draw up rules for interventionist behaviour?

Case law of what we consider harmful or unacceptable treatments should be used to derive principles of good and bad practice. The Law and many of our ordinary moral judgements develop in this way. Case law of normal cases serves as a guide to rational discussion of hard cases. The different relevant principles that conservators are continually required to evaluate in their decision making, which are currently only implied by practice, need to be brought to light so that our ability to explain our judgements is improved. This then reinforces practices which are better understood and so better defended. Rules can be given both content and flexibility by adding addenda which explain the meaning of the terms used with examples, and by giving the rule followed by exceptions.

Other questions which should be addressed include procedures for the protection of professional conduct, allocation of responsibility, and what to do in cases of conflict.

Much can be learned by studying other professions particulary medicine and law. Philosophers who already play an important role on hospital and company boards may be useful in bringing their understanding of medical and business ethics to bear on conservation issues.

Responsibility for our heritage is wider than conservation and so any ethical stance and code chosen must withstand the criticism of others. A strong code of practice would, to quote Dr Wilsmore 'enable individuals to know where they stand in regard to their responsibility for interventions on buildings and objects. It would enable their institutions to do likewise and therefore make a difference to heritage policy both nationally and internationally'. As we are the interveners, it is up to us to sort out our position.


1. Sheasby, S., 'The Technical Examination and Conservation of Painted Furniture', V&A Conservation Journal, No 4, July 1992, p.15.