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The ethics of conservation practice: a look from within

Titika Malkogeorgou
Visiting Researcher

A new territory for conservation was marked by the discussion of the conservation profession in the IIC Melbourne Congress (2000). Initiated by a members' survey carried out a year earlier, it reflects a much current self-critical approach that looks at conservation and its practice from within the field. More writing of books and conservation articles in journals and periodicals have since followed on this theme. My own research project is also concerned with this opening up of the field. In particular I am investigating the role of the conservator in the construction, preservation and transmission of cultural knowledge and, within the setting of the Victoria and Albert Museum, I am gaining a better understanding of how conservation practices are shaped and adapted to the requirements of a major national institution.

Conservation as it developed in the twentieth century has traditionally been viewed as a scientific practice in which the conservator applied technical skills to preserve cultural material. In particular it is the codes of ethics on one hand that are seen as the profession's necessary process of articulating collective ideals (by defining a moral ground from which to operate), while on the other, ethics in conservation practice are applied through a rationalistic scientific approach based on evidence and hard facts. This provides the foundation for conservation practice and continues to be its defining paradigm. For the profession it is both this moral ground defined by the codes of ethics and the scientific foundation based on the rationalistic approach that underpins practice for conservators as they provide evidences of past knowledge, and the means by which these maybe transmitted into the future.

Museum collections are repositories of communication and cultural memory, and so conservation is a practice that focuses on the preservation of cultural knowledge in objects, the authentication of which creates an inseparable bond between the conservator and the conserved object. Moreover, conservation practice is carried out in particular settings which define how communication and cultural memory influence national identities. Hence heritage preservation policies and decision-making influence conservation as a professional practice. They contribute to the creation of a shared sense of cultural memory and impact on the ethical codes of the conservator.

The nexus of the two: the conservator's knowledge on the one hand and the setting of conservation practice on the other, defines the field of conservation. Because in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (mainly) restorers were being accused of falsification and therefore fabrication of truth - either by making old things look beautiful and new, or of making new things look old and valuable according to taste - an aesthetic and philosophical shift of values started to occur resulting in conservators becoming more concerned with not altering the meaning of objects. With Ruskin as the main ambassador for the 'age value' and 'unity of feeling', exercising great influence on the idea of conservation ethics, the concept of truth became fundamental in preservation challenging the desire for completion which prevailed until then.

Conservation thus as a new profession developed a profile that privileges the idea of knowledge based on information and evidence as truth. Within this structure conservators set themselves as advocates for the object with an aim to preserve and not alter, to secure but not to change, to maintain rather than recreate, and this is how 'the conservator-restorer's activities are distinct from those of the artistic or crafts profession. A basic criteria of this distinction is that by their activities, conservator-restorers do not create new cultural objects' (ECCO Professional Guidelines: http://www.ecco-eu.info/ last checked 24/11/05)

After World War II official bodies were created that codified a set of values. The first international conferences on aspects of museum practice took place in Rome in 1930 and Athens in 1931, hosted by the International Museums Office of the League of Nations (later ICOM) and the first charters were drafted. The Charter of Athens (1931) was followed by the Charter of Venice (1964) formulating codes in order to create a common ground. Now codes of practice are expressed through, and as part of the European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers' Organisation (ECCO); the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC); the United Kingdom Institute for Conservation (formerly known as UKIC, now ICON). On a more local level is the Victoria and Albert Museum Conservation Department's Ethics Checklist (revised 2005).

Conservation is thus established as both ethical and scientific, based on a theoretical approach of: 'being the methodological moment in which the object is appreciated in its material form, and its historical and aesthetic "duality", with a view to transmitting it to the future'.1 But could this 'materials science' focus, versus the 'historical-aesthetic' approach be problematic or even counter productive? After all we normally think of conservation in its context. Taking away the discourse from conservation by focusing the argument on technical issues, and the pragmatics, means also bypassing questions directly relating to the practice. According to Winter2 on issues of Values in Archaeology what we call science is composed of value statements. So if conservation is not simply about unearthing values inherent in the object but it involves destruction and recreation then what about the role of the conservator? Latour3 in his Pandora's Hope explores the dichotomy between object and subject, human-non-human, where the argument science-ethics resides and asserts why humans can not be separated from their creations.

This debate in conservation is illustrated by Annie Hall's research project at the Victoria and Albert Museum and her 'A Case Study on the Ethical Considerations for an Intervention upon a Tibetan Religious Sculpture' published in The Conservator, No 28 (2004). This is a case that most conservators at the Museum are probably familiar with and it brings out not just the practical ramifications of certain theories adopted in conservation, such as the dichotomy between science and ethics, and the consequent effort to reconciliation, but also change in the meaning of objects as they move from one context to another and the conservator's power to control, or not, interpretation.

Here the debate was specifically into whether the scrolls found inside the cavity of the Tibetan - gilded and pigmented copper alloy - sculpture of the Buddha Shakyamuni could be removed, and displayed separately, and on what basis the decision was based. Examples of the conflicting values that the need for preservation brings into the open certainly beg for a more in-depth analysis of the practice and in a way that can happen from within the field. Hall's research shows that there is not a straightforward distinction of what constitutes a religious as opposed to an art or design object. She vividly demonstrates that there is a multitude of views coming from the various stakeholders. While not all conservators share the same opinions, the curators and trustees of the Museum were also involved, and they had their own views too.

Much of the debate about the sculpture of the Buddha Shakyamuni takes us back to issues to do with the conservator's relationship to objects and to context. Conservation ethics and museum ethics shape and are shaped by practice as it takes place everyday. What interests me is why do such cases arise and what is their impact in the way the actual practice is carried out? The need for preservation can bring into the open a variety of conflicting issues but also opportunities for reconciliation. A complex object in terms of conservation practice, could be sculpture, metal, colour, paper, and in need of environmental control, handling and mounting all at once.

It can also be religious, archaeological, aesthetically important and, in terms of cultural knowledge, priceless. And because conservation continuously changes as it is shaped everyday through what goes on in practice in the studio, while it shapes cultural knowledge by preserving culturally important artefacts, it is worth observing and analysing what conservation practice is about. It can strengthen professionalism in the field and can encourage innovation and development of excellence through confidence.

The author is studying Material Culture at the UCL Anthropology Department and is based at the V&A Sculpture Conservation Studio. Her Ph.D. Research is funded by the AHRC.


1. Brandi, C., 'Theory of Restoration, I', Historical and Philosophical Issues in Conservation of Cultural Heritage (The J. Paul Getty Trust, 1996)
2. Winter, J. C., 'The Way to Somewhere: Ethics in American Archaeology', in Green, E.L., ed. Values in Archaeology. (New York: Free Press, 1984)
3. Latour, B., Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Harvard University Press, 1999)

Further Reading

Avrami, Mason, and De La Torre, eds. Values and Heritage Conservation, Research Report (The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, 2000) www.getty.edu/conservation/resources/valuesrpt.pdf (last checked 03/11/2005)
Buchli, V., The Material Culture Reader, (Oxford: Berg, 2002)
Layton, Stone & Thomas, eds. The Destruction and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (London: Routledge, 2001)