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Review: Ethics in America

Alison Richmond
Senior Paper Conservator, Conservation Department

23rd Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC)
St. Paul, Minnesota
4-11 June 1995

For any conservator suffering from flagging spirits I prescribe a dose of American enthusiasm to be taken once a year around the second week of June, in a city somewhere in North America, selected for its historic and artistic interest. The sheer gusto with which American conservators attack such heady issues as 'Artist's Intent' (the theme of last year's general session) or 'Ethics' (this year's) is refreshing and impressive. They even manage to imbue the proceedings with a sense of fun!

This international gathering included speakers from all over Europe, Canada and North America. The various perspectives presented in the papers succeeded in expanding and multiplying the contexts in which conservators normally view their roles and responsibilities: a national preservation plan (Delta Plan, The Netherlands); international law and agreements (1970 UNESCO Convention; 1994 Nara Document on Authenticity); US federal and state legislation (Archaeological Resources Protection Act 1976); Copyright Law and Artists' Moral Rights (Carter v. Helmsley-Spear); and International Documentation Standards for the Protection of Cultural Objects (Getty Art History Information Programme, London). Working in concert with other professions and international bodies in order to protect and preserve was a continuous theme. The role of AIC in promoting this co-operation was another.

Underlying many of the papers was a sense of urgency and, in some cases, desperation. Time is running out on the moveable heritage of many indigenous cultures. A shift in political climate and prolonged economic recession has meant that governments are reluctant to continue to support values held by our profession, and funding is decreasing everywhere. Against this background we are forced to reconsider our assumptions about what we do. Three papers stand out in what was a very stimulating two days.

Diane Nester Kresh, Director of Preservation at the Library of Congress, described how a working strategic preservation plan was put in place. By involving staff at all levels at every stage, by reconsidering priorities and addressing the needs of the collection 'across the board', by implementing recommendations as they went along, a practical plan was drawn up which would take the Library through the Millennium.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a brand-new, state-of-the-art establishment, experienced an extreme case of conflict between the mandate of the museum, to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust, and the conservator's mission to preserve. The 'open' installation design minimised interference with a direct experience of the artifacts on permanent display. Two unpredicted factors were to have serious consequences for the preservation of the collection: the popularity of the museum combined with the poor performance of the air-conditioning system. With imagination, all staff co-operated to find hundreds of small solutions to what had appeared to be an insurmountable problem.

The Delta Plan in The Netherlands identified obstacles to preservation of the national heritage: few institutions had preservation plans; there was little continuity in conservation projects; distribution of resources was weighted towards education and acquisition, exhibitions and loans which had resulted in the build-up of huge backlogs. To receive funding under the Plan, an institution was required to make some hard decisions. Collections had to be prioritised according to national cultural significance and no conservation treatments could be undertaken, only preservation activities. A checklist was devised to aid decision-making. Its value as a tool was directly related to the existence of certain conditions: a conservation plan, the right mentality throughout the institution, and avoidance of backlogs.

The main reason for my attendance at the Meeting was to present the work which the Conservation Department at the V&A had been doing over a number of years. It began in 1993 with a 'Workshop on Ethical Decision-making' and culminated in drafting an 'Ethics Checklist', a series of questions which can aid decision-making when approaching any task conservation staff might face. At the conference the message was clear - people liked what we had done and wanted to do it themselves. I think there are two reasons for the appeal of our approach: it is practical and is based on solid principles of good decision-making (see footnote). As specified in the AIC 'Code of Ethics' and 'Guidelines for Practice', the obligations of the conservator lie not only with caring for objects but also to the conservation profession. This was admirably demonstrated in the discussions held at the Issues Meeting.

After a presentation by the President, Debbie Hess Norris, on streamlining the membership system and enfranchising more members, the discussion brought up matters all too familiar to anyone following the saga of restructuring of the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation (UKIC). Who should be eligible to be a member? Should it be exclusive to so-called 'professional' conservators and, if so, how do we define that category? The subsequent Business Meeting prompted a lively debate on the pros and cons of reviewing the by-laws of AIC on a regular basis. It all added up to give the impression of AIC thriving on the active and vocal participation of its members.

After the General Session the meeting split up into Specialty Groups. Of course, there is nothing to stop non-members of any particular group attending a session. With great self-discipline I restricted myself to the Book and Paper session.

Following the publication of the AIC 'Code of Ethics' and 'Guidelines for Practice' (see 1995 AIC Directory), 'commentaries' are being drafted which will provide additional information specific to each specialisation. The first topic under consideration by all groups is documentation. It is hoped that the first draft commentaries will be approved and ready for presentation in time for the next Annual Meeting to be held in Norfolk, Virginia, from 11 to 16 June 1996.


Copies of the checklist are available from Management Services, Conservation Department, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, SW7 2RL, UK