October 1997 Issue 25
Questions and Answers: Review of 'The Interface Between Science and Conservation'
One always hopes that the next conference one attends will provide the answer. Naive, perhaps, but universal truth is comforting. Almost equally so is the belief that it really is out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. This conference (British Museum, 24 April 1997), like others before it, did not provide the answer. To be fair, its title did not really pose a question, but allowed speakers to describe and explore a territory which, if not virgin, is well worth revisiting. An interface is a region where two species of some kind come together. Interfaces are often interesting places with potential for unusual phenomena or change. Is an interface a connection or a separation, common ground or no man's land? The answer is, of course, that it can be both, and both scenarios were represented at the conference1 .
There were numerous case studies illustrating the contribution science makes to conservation research and problem solving. The fact that they will not be discussed here does not mean that they were neither interesting nor valuable (many were both) but I feel that their overall message can be taken as read. Surely few would dispute that science is vital to conservation practice today.
As many speakers stated, a first step in scientific or any other research is to frame the question correctly. In his foreword to the pre-prints Andrew Oddy asks the question 'So what is the role of these (conservation) scientists?' and this may be taken as the intended conference theme. More to the point was Ellen Ruth McCrady's title, 'Can scientists and conservators work together?'
A historical perspective on the British Museum was provided by Sarah Watkins and Susan Bradley brought this up to date. They reminded delegates that conservation developed from the influence of scientific thought and method on traditional, craft-based restoration practices. This makes the (unattributed) comment on day three that 'if there was no conservation, there'd be no conservation scientists' appear somewhat churlish in hindsight, however amusing to conservators in the audience at the time!
Norman Tennent's career enabled him to provide an authoritative overview of the state of conservation science and also to suggest a practical way forward. He was far from alone in identifying communication as being crucial to the advancement of conservation science; the difficult part is to achieve it in a timely, representative and constructive fashion. Publication is one important tool and Tennent proposed the launch of a new journal for Conservation Science. As described, it sounded laudable, but could have the disadvantage of removing 'proper' science from the conservation mainstream and reinforcing communication barriers.
Stephen Hackney's call for a special fund for conservation research was countered by Clifford Price's assertion that conservation is no more special than many other disciplines and should expect to compete on the same terms. This may dismay some in conservation - the 'specialness' of conservation is why we do it, and we want everyone to recognise it - but there is a danger that protectionism could lead to inferior research and so defeat its purpose.
If we're not currently communicating effectively, why not? One reason seemed to be that stereotypes still thrive. Mary Brooks and Sheila Fairbrass parodied popular conceptions of scientists with their slides of mad and/or sinister characters. Despite frequent cautions about generalisations, much of the discussion still seemed to be based on the scientists' view of conservators as highly skilled but emotional, instinctive and scientifically ignorant. Correspondingly conservators see scientists as cool but patronising rationalists with little appreciation of the complexities of conservation. The paper by Jerry Podany and David Scott gave a balanced review of scientists' and conservators' perceptions of each other and what each can contribute to conservation projects. McCrady's brisk presentation also gave a pithy summary of some of the reasons for conflict. Using examples from beyond the conservation sphere, she both suggested measures to improve the communication flow at local level and confirmed that conservation is not so special that conservators cannot learn from other fields.
'So, what is the role of these (conservation) scientists?' Definitions abounded and there was some debate about whether technical and archaeometrical studies per se actually constitute conservation science, or should the term be reserved for activities directly concerned with preservation and treatment? It was not resolved. Can scientists and conservators work together? Yes, note the value of asking the right question. The problem, however, is not really what the conservation scientist may do, but ensuring that what is done is effective. Currently, this is not always the case, mainly because there are too few of them. Conservation science is being done by scientists and conservators who are not specifically conservation scientists, leading to continual reinvention of wheels. The conservation scientists who do exist are too thinly spread, metaphorically and geographically.
New specialist roles were also suggested at the conference; 'clinical consultant' analogues by Ashley Smith and 'conservation technologists' by Tennent and Podany & Scott quoting Torraca. These roles would be to interpret between conservators and scientists and facilitate the translation of research findings into practical processes. Such individuals would need to have highly developed sensibilities in both conservation and science. Of course these people exist; but they have not generally adopted the specific function of ensuring that conservators and scientists are not only on the same wavelength, but in phase.
And what does it all mean for the conservation teacher? As Oddy said, education is fundamental to the breaching of barricades. Brooks and Fairbrass emphasised the teaching of science not only as a list of facts but as a paradigm for conservation practice, an admirable aim for any conservation course. It is important that conservators should not be encouraged simply to leave science to conservation scientists, but must be interested and involved themselves. Indeed, if there are to be more conservation scientists, the need for scientifically literate conservators becomes more pressing, not less, in order to maintain a meaningful dialogue.
Is the answer, then, only to seek conservation course candidates with a scientific background? It is tempting to say yes, especially in the afterglow of this conference. Science is important and set to remain so. And yet, and yet ... conservation is more than science and to stress that aspect above all else could cut off many skilled and dedicated people from entry to the profession. No conservator can afford to ignore science, but there is room for those whose chief strengths lie elsewhere. The next conference might be on the interface between art history and conservation, and that wouldn't provide the answer either.