Spring 2002 Issue 40
The reflective conservator
The last issue of this Journal concentrated on the tremendous volume of practical conservation work needed to ensure that all the objects in the newly-opened British Galleries were stable and looking good. While none of this work was done without investigation and deliberation, the emphasis of the reports was on project planning and practical intervention which did not truly reflect the whole of what the Conservation Department does. To redress the balance this issue concentrates on the practical activity of finding out about objects and what they are made from, and the more academic activity of thinking about objects and their preservation.
The name often given to finding out new things and thinking new thoughts is ‘research’. When that word is used in the context of conservation, the immediate assumption seems to be that research is the prerogative of science. However, the research themes that are developing within the Conservation Department and within the RCA/V&A Conservation programme are not solely scientific. The use of analytical equipment has its place in art historical and conservation studies, as is shown by the reports on scientific collaborations and on the use of Raman spectroscopy. But other projects rely on just the eye and the brain and still qualify as conservation ‘research’.
Recently another word has entered the conservation vocabulary: ‘reflection’. The increase in research topics that are less about scientific hardware and more about what people think is an indication of increasing reflection in conservation. The conclusion reached in discussions about conservation training and accreditation is that the fully-rounded conservator must be reflective. This means something more than appearing bright by re-transmitting illumination from another source. It means thinking about a subject both in a focused way, to enable ethical and cost-effective decision-making, and in a broader fashion so that the context of one’s actions is fully understood.
It is amusing to reflect that one of the definitions of ‘academic’ is ‘not leading to a decision’. Yet a number of the academic research projects currently in progress are aimed at providing frameworks for decision-making. The fairly simple and now well-worn concept of risk can generate reflections in a multitude of directions. While many of these may seem to be unpractical because they deal with intangibles such as value and uncertain things such as probability, they are all aimed at gaining insight into the ways we select options for protection, preservation and treatment. We need to know which values are affected by our decisions. Which aspects of value are we determined to preserve or enhance and which are we reluctantly prepared to sacrifice? Is it more important to preserve intent, information or physical material? If we talk about preserving values for the future, how many years from now does the future start and when, for decision-making purposes, does it stop?
In this issue there are articles on the global, long-term concept of sustainability and on the local and immediate potential of social events in historic houses to cause damage. These may appear to be very different yet they both raise questions about authenticity and the definition of damage. Subjects worthy of both research and reflection.