Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation Department

Conservators and conservation scientists have always had to face ethical dilemmas and have used various tools such as agreed guidelines or the traditions of their specialist discipline to help them reach a decision. Although the importance of the subject remains constant, the degree of active discussion within the profession is markedly cyclical. Last year showed signs of being the start of a new period of debate about the ethics of conservation.

There have been changes in the nature of the debate. Thirteen years ago when the UKIC published its 'Guidance for Conservation Practice' many of the problems within this Museum were stated in the form 'I do not feel right doing what the curator has told me to do.' In the Ethics Workshop held at the V&A during September last year a frequently heard call was 'How can we encourage curators to become involved in the decision making process?'

The content and outcome of the Workshop is reported in this journal. The decision to hold the workshop was taken because it seemed to be the right time to do such a thing. Among the signs of timeliness were an increase in the number of students who wanted to discuss papers on ethics that I had written a decade ago and the defensive flurry of criticisms of Dr Susan Wilsmore's interest in the field. There were discussions on ethics in at least two of the working groups at the ICOM-CC 93 meeting in Washington and the UKIC Textiles Group chose ethics as the subject for debate at its 1993 AGM. The American Institute for Conservation was in the process of making a major revision of its Code of Practice and Standards of Conduct.

There are several possible reasons why there is a current upsurge of interest. Within organisations that are principally financed from public funds there is increasing concern about accountability and the need to justify decisions. There is increasing pressure to 'produce', with the assumption that a key indicator is number of treatments. This has an effect on the time available for each treatment which obviously affects the nature of that interaction.

Another factor is the improved sensitivity of various methods of scientific examination. It is now possible to detect minute residues of chemical agents left after treatment. It is possible to detect changes in dimension and surface morphology that are invisible to the unaided eye. This is all new information that the conservator must assess before deciding on the necessity or nature of a treatment.

In Europe there is renewed interest in the professional status of the conservator which has revived an interest in statutes and codes of practice which define the relationship between conservator and client which inevitably has implications on the relationship between the conservator and the object.

The restructuring of the Department has provided an opportunity to reassess the role of Conservation in the Museum. It also provides the opportunity to examine inconsistencies in the way that different sections of the Department treat both objects and clients. We should be able to justify these inconsistent approaches if it turns out that we do not need to erradicate them. The Ethics Workshop was an example of one way to examine the way we work. It was a highly successful and enjoyable event. The danger lies in dismissing it as merely an event, now somewhere in the past. The task is to ensure that it is treated as part of a continuing process.