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Sustainability and precaution: Part 2 How precautionary should we be?

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Senior Research Fellow, Research Department

The degree of caution exercised by conservators on behalf of museum objects has often been criticised. This caution, usually interpreted as negativity, is said to interfere with the plans of other museum professionals for the interpretation and display of the collections. Conservators also show a cautious attitude by adopting the ethic of minimum intervention. The principles of precaution and sustainability have developed in the area of public health and ecological conservation and although they seem to be based on coherent rational argument there is continuing disagreement about interpretation. Fashion and inertia may allow the transfer of these concepts into the realm of museum conservation where a similar vocabulary exists but where the problems may be entirely different.

The likelihood of this transfer of ideas is quite strong. The notion of conservation as the management of change has already been adopted by organisations, such as English Heritage and the National Trust, that have responsibility for both natural and man-made heritage. Nicholas Stanley-Price, the Director of ICCROM, recently suggested that his organisation should develop closer links with the field of nature conservation. Supporting this mental link to the conservation of the living world are convenient anthropomorphic medical metaphors for the conservation of objects that have never been alive.

In this discussion a distinction will be drawn between ordinary caution and the application of the Precautionary Principle. Caution means being aware that there are risks and then, considering the relative magnitude of risk, managing one’s behaviour to minimise damage. As indicated in the first article in this series1 the Precautionary Principle is incorporated in the Maastricht Treaty and is thus a basis for European law-making and regulation. In its most prescriptive forms the Precautionary Principle implies that regulation of behaviour is mandatory merely because someone can conceive of a potential hazard.

Behaviour must be regulated even though there is no certainty that this hazard constitutes a real threat, even though there is no logical mechanism for realising the threat, even if the loss of benefit through regulation seems punitive. It is a requirement of the most rigorous interpretation of the Principle that the burden of proof does not lie with the regulator but with the person whose proposed behaviour might cause exposure to the hazard.

The conservator already has the tools to formulate relevant and acceptable interpretations of these principles. In collections conservation, preventive measures were traditionally demanded whenever there was a suspicion of harm. But there was always some sense of compromise. Even the most die-hard conservator would allow some light to fall on an object so that it could be seen occasionally. The ecological extremists argue against compromise. In object conservation some sense of proportion can be arrived at through risk assessment. Yet this approach seems to have failed in environmental conservation:

“We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to protect adequately human health and environment.”2

In environmental conservation the rights of future generations have ferocious advocates:

“In risk analysis, the duty of care to prevent harms to the interests of future cohorts of human beings…. should outweigh any claims of benefits for current cohorts.”3

Yet a large part of practical museum conservation is aimed at current access and interpretation, encouraged by a respect for current users. It seems curious that the philosophical move away from interventive conservation should coincide with the conservation profession’s realisation that the business exists, to a large extent, for the present generation of users. By actively promoting the use of collections, conservators stand a far better chance of achieving what they claim as their major purpose, the objects’ continuing preservation4 . It is only by being less precautionary (which does not mean abandoning all caution), in both intervention and attempts at regulation, that conservators can be seen to be doing something of value and interest to contemporary stakeholders.

The Precautionary Principle cannot really ever be a statement of principle. It is in fact a ‘vague and malleable policy guideline’5 , and as such has a recognisable similarity to the statements found in codes of ethics. To be useful such ‘rules’ are written in broad and simple terms, but to give absolute direction they have to be interpreted in the light of local and immediate circumstances. The interpretations will be governed by individual motivations and vested interests. Thus, there is a strong divergence of opinion about how absolutely the regulation of proposed new products and activities should be implemented, given uncertainty or the absence of evidence.

The most recent guidance for implementing the Principle within the regulatory framework of the European Union6 recognises that there cannot be a blanket application of a single interpretation. There are numerous qualifications: the measures should be proportionate to the risk, must attempt to maximise net benefit and must take into account the costs and risks of alternatives (including doing nothing). Most importantly there is a need for continuing research to reduce uncertainties even after precautionary measures have been taken.

Over the past decade conservators and collections managers have been exposed to the idea that their actions and decisions could be guided by systems that include risk assessment and cost-benefit comparisons7 . The risk assessment approach easily leads to a proportional response. Most importantly the conservation profession has continued research into hazard-harm relationships, and from time to time has attempted to relax precautionary guidelines that research has shown to be too restrictive. For instance, the attitudes of a large proportion of the conservation community to maximum light levels and tolerable bands of humidity have become more flexible.

However there is still cause for concern. The European Union, while advocating the benefits of continuing research, has more or less abandoned funding any research that would be useful in reducing uncertainties about the risks to cultural heritage. In recent years it has only supported short term projects aimed at producing commercial products rather than long term understanding. Another worry is the continuation in some areas of conservation of the ALARA principle. This is the line followed in some of the more extreme environmental regulations in both Europe and the US. What is ‘As Low As Reasonably Achievable’ must be of necessity, the best, regardless of need, cost or practicability.

The way in which other interpretations of sustainability and authenticity alter the need for precaution will be dealt with in the third and final article in this series.


1 J.Ashley-Smith. Sustainability and Precaution: Part 1. V&A Conservation Journal. 40. Spring 2002. pp 4-6.

2 Peter Montague. The Precautionary Principle. Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly (Environmental Research Foundation). 586. February 1998.

3 Perri6. The morality of managing risk: paternalism, prevention and precaution, and the limits of proceduralism. Journal of Risk Research 3(2), 2000, pp 35 -165.

4 Marie Berducou. Why involve the public in heritage conservation-restoration? Conservation at the End of the 20th Century. Ed David Grattan. ICOM-CC. 1999, pp 15-18.

5 Quirino Balzano, Asher R Sheppard. The influence of the precautionary principle on science-based decision-making. Journal of Risk research 5 (40, 2002 pp 351-369.

6 Communication from the Commission on the Precautionary Principle. COM(2000)1 – C5-0143/2000 –2000/2086(COS).http://europa.eu.int/comm/dgs/health_consumer/library/pub/pub07_en.pdf

7 Anything by Rob Waller, but most recently: A Risk Model for Collection Preservation. 13th Triennial Meeting Rio de Janeiro. ICOM-CC. 2002. pp 102-107.