April 1995 Issue 15
Book review: locked in the laboratory
'Durability and Change: The Science, Responsibility, and Cost of Sustaining Cultural Heritage'
Edited by W E Krumbein, P Brimblecombe, D E Cosgrove and S Staniforth.
Published by John Wiley and Sons, 1994, 326 pages. £65
'They were there from Monday to Saturday, nobody knew they were there.' (Children's rhyme)
What happens if you confine fifty scientists, conservators, museum directors, architects and academics for five days and tell them to think deep thoughts about the present state of cultural heritage and predictions for its future? A first glance at this book suggests that you get some poetry, some dense, though not necessarily deep, philosophising and no clear answers. A more thorough inspection reveals a broad and up-to-date overview of a complex subject where there can never be any clear answers.
The purpose of the workshop was not to reach consensus or to provide solutions. At a Dahlem Konferenzen Workshop the aim is to identify gaps in knowledge, find new ways of approaching controversial issues and define priorities for future research. The mechanism for achieving this is known as the Dahlem Workshop Model. A year before the meeting, a Program Advisory Committee meets to define the parameters, select participants and assign tasks. One task for those selected is to write review papers to be read by the other participants in preparation for the workshop. There are no formal presentations at the meeting. Everything is achieved through discussions within groups and between groups. Each of the four groups is given a key question that focuses discussion and, at the end of the week, each group has to report reflecting current opinions and future directions.
This book is a record of the workshop held in Berlin during December 1992, the goal of which was 'to evaluate processes that contribute to change in objects, cultural materials, and artifacts, and to find appropriate ways of conserving them.' It consists of an introduction by the four editors, revised versions of the background papers and the four group reports. In addition there are three appendices that document some specialised discussions that do not neatly fit the overall format.
The participants came from as far west as California but no further east than Moscow. Scientists outnumbered conservators, and the total conservation/science group heavily outnumbered the humanist/humanities contingent. The nationalities represented fell into four groups of roughly equal size: the Brits, the North Americans, the Germans and the rest of the World.
This book is not an easy read. Specialist texts by professionals in other disciplines will inevitably contain new words and new ideas that cannot be fully assimilated in one reading. Even in closely related areas of science, different points of reference and different units of measurement can cause confusion. However, at the end of it, the effort is generally worthwhile.
The reviews of metal corrosion by Graedel and of stone decay by Drever and by Schuster et al . give good overviews and provide many general and specific references for further reading. William Ginell from the Getty Conservation Institute covers the effect of physical factors from the heat of display lamps to the shock and vibration of earthquakes. Urzi and Krumbein's review of microbiological impacts is exceptionally comprehensive, perhaps to give a boost to this generally underrated subject. Peter Brimblecombe makes some interesting observations about the kinetics and thermodynamics of reactions when trying to extrapolate to very low doses of atmospheric pollutants. Tim Padfield calls into question the current use of rigid standards for lighting and relative humidity in museums. Norman Tennent argues that conservation science would be better served by concentrating on the problems rather than on the instrumental means of solving them.
In contrast to the scientists, with their equations, graphs and SEM photos, there are essays on the enduring dynamic of landscape by Robert Melznick, on the value of age and decay by David Lowenthal and selling cultural heritage by Brian Goodey. Denis Cosgrove asks the most pertinent question: 'Should we take it all so seriously?'
The group reports, the work of a week in collation and two years in revision and editing, make interesting reading. They reflect the difficulties of communication between many disciplines or of co-operative research within just one. They reflect a predominant interest in the built environment rather than the smaller collected artifacts or the larger landscape, even though there is a declared wish to have a 'shared, integrated arts, science and environmental framework'. As is almost inevitable, the resolutions of the groups do not quite answer the stated goal of the meeting but result in demands for more of the same, fewer barriers, more standards and a clarion call to boldly go...
Because of the calibre of the people involved and because the references have been brought right up to date (1994), this publication provides an accurate snap-shot of the leading edge of conservation science and philosophy. Whether at £65 it's a pretty enough picture to share with your friends is another matter.