By Jeffrey Levin
The 1970s and 1980s were a time of tremendous growth for cultural heritage conservation in the United States. In a twenty-year period, the membership of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) increased sixfold, and thousands of cultural institutions added staff members responsible for collections care. Within the same decades, the availability of outside conservation services expanded. In 1969 there were but two regional conservation centers offering conservation services for U.S. cultural institutions. Today 13 centers provide service to more than 2,400 museums and collecting institutions.
While conservation is increasingly a part of managing museums, libraries, archives, and historical societies—as well as archaeological sites and historic structures—the challenges to conservation rise to match the efforts. Testing the scientific skills and knowledge of conservation professionals are more and bigger collections, growing numbers of sites and structures, and a greater variety of materials requiring conservation, such as modern art materials, color photographs, and industrial items. And while the needs seem to increase geometrically, the resources do not.
The diversity of what institutions seek to preserve is staggering. Everything from paintings to airplanes, ethnographic objects to government documents, and buildings to books have come to be part of the nation's artistic and historic heritage.
Do those who shoulder the primary burden of caring for this heritage share a common body of problems? Are, for example, the concerns of a state archivist similar to those of the head of conservation at a fine art museum? Is there a common interest between an administrator at a museum of natural history and someone faced with the task of preserving historic properties?
These were the kind of questions put to over 20 experts in conservation management at a gathering last November at the Getty Conservation Institute. In a two-and-a-half-day meeting organized by the GCI and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (NIC), conservators, museum officers, archivists, preservation administrators, and site managers from around the United States discussed a variety of management issues and a collective approach that could be taken to deal with them.
"From our founding, interdisciplinary action has been a fundamental part of what the Getty Conservation Institute is about," explained GCI Director Miguel Angel Corzo. "With the Institute celebrating its first decade as an operating program of the Getty Trust, we thought this an appropriate time to initiate a broad-based review of conservation management."
The goal of encouraging different disciplines to work together was one shared by the NIC, said its President, Larry Reger. He considered the meeting an opportunity to "look at the big picture" and to talk about the larger problems in the field.
The November meeting was probably the first large multidisciplinary gathering of its kind to explore in depth administrative issues surrounding conservation; included were administrative, curatorial, and conservation perspectives. Those attending came from a range of institutions: fine art and natural history museums, conservation departments and laboratories, historical societies, libraries and archives, and historic properties. While not every concern was shared by all, there was, in the end, remarkable unanimity on where the priority for action lay—increasing the public's support for conservation's work.
Public awareness, in fact, was the first issue discussed at the meeting's opening session. Barclay Ogden, Director of the University of California Preservation Program, led off the session by asking participants to deal with the fundamental question of conservation's necessity: Why is it important to save cultural property? What purpose does it serve?
Instability "comes when societies cannot see themselves reflected in their institutions," Mexican author Carlos Fuentes has observed. A major function of cultural property, suggested Mr. Ogden, is its role in preserving cultural stability by transmitting values. Whether it is the material or the form or the process by which a cultural object was created, "what we are saving is some expression of authenticity." Authenticity is the heritage community's great asset—but it has had difficulty selling it.
Others agreed that for the public, authenticity has drawing power.
"People are riveted by the real thing," said Frank Sanchis, a Vice President at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For most people, he pointed out, personal objects such as letters, jewelry, and photographs have the greatest meaning in their original form. In a similar way, people do not want substitutions for authentic cultural objects or places. "Their attitude is 'If I can't see the original, then why did I bother to come?'"
Still, interest in the original does not necessarily mean an appreciation of efforts to preserve it. Conservation remains an invisible process to the public. Museums have visitor education programs but these typically lack a conservation component, remarked Ross Merrill, Chief of Conservation at the National Gallery of Art and NIC Board Chairman. The same is true at the nation's historic buildings and archaeological sites. Visitor tours are not used as a vehicle for educating the public about preservation, in part because the guides themselves know little about conservation.
Public interest in conservation is also inhibited by the profession's apparent ex post facto character. "Viewed from the outside, conservation seems to lack the excitement of activities that involve discovery or creativity," explained Neville Agnew, the GCI's Associate Director for Programs.
There are times when the broad public has rallied in support of a preservation effort, perhaps the most notable instance being in the mid-1980s when the American public contributed tens of millions of dollars toward the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. But the Statue's preservation effort in some ways was the exception that proves the rule. In this case the survival of a national icon was at stake. Most conservation is performed on objects lacking that status and tends to be considered by the public as more "ordinary" and therefore less worthy of attention. In addition, the Statue's cultural appeal is broad, encompassing people from diverse backgrounds. Because the character of the U.S. population is so multicultural, such national consensus on a cultural object's or site's importance is perhaps less easily achieved than in countries whose citizenry is more homogeneous.
For all these reasons, conservation of cultural heritage has yet to elicit significant public support—or even attention—in the United States.
"Conservation is a hard sell," observed Don Duckworth, President and Director of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. "It's hard to get those regular public dollars for ongoing conservation."
The two and a half days of discussion covered a variety of other topics, among them the criteria for selecting objects to conserve, the conservation of materials intended to deteriorate, the application of cost-benefit models to conservation, the interpretation of professional conservation standards, the use of nonconservation staff for conservation work, and the handling of personnel shortages.
Those in charge of conservation management continually face choices about what will receive conservation treatment. At museums, the factors determining treatment can include an object's use, condition, and value. As Robert Futernick, Chairman of Conservation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, noted, a complicating factor is calculating the benefit received for the resources expended. "Some objects can benefit a lot from a little conservation. Other objects require a lot of resources to achieve only modest results." For historic properties, managers frequently must choose between giving attention to a building or to the collection housed by the building. Typically the building's preservation receives priority.
Unfortunately, at many archaeological sites, conservation is not even a consideration. Benign or purposeful neglect is more typical. Since these sites are among the most popular drawing cards for tourists, this neglect is extremely short-sighted, given the public interest, cultural treasure, and economic value these sites represent. NIC President Larry Reger noted that the problems of archaeological site conservation clearly deserve greater attention.
While those in conservation know well the limits of their resources, those outside the profession do not. Gary Burger, Director of the Williamstown Regional Art Conservation Laboratory, believes it important that the public appreciate the choices the profession faces. "We ought to let the public know that we have been forced into a triage situation."
"We have to come to grips with the question 'Can we save everything?'" said Blaine Cliver, Chief of the Preservation Assistance Division at the National Park Service. It is a question that some outside the conservation field may well understand. As Clara Sue Kidwell of the National Museum of the American Indian humorously noted, "I have a friend who believes that the North American continent will collapse under the weight of stored copies of the National Geographic."
The deterioration of materials is a problem that faces a variety of collections. Ethnographic and natural science collections commonly confront this, but the problem also extends to modern materials. The Smithsonian Institution, for example, has had to grapple with preserving materials used during space missions, materials whose endurance beyond the mission was not a factor in their design. At the Library of Congress, it is simply not feasible to preserve all of the countless paperback books that are part of the massive collection. "I'm interested in keeping them," explained Diane Kresh, Director of the Library's Preservation Directorate, "but not in repairing them with Japanese paper."
Ms. Kresh also provided another example of the kind of problem conservators in various fields confront: the issue of the intent of the creator. When the library came into possession of a collection of Sigmund Freud's papers—papers that Freud himself had torn up and thrown away—there was serious discussion as to whether the papers should be preserved with or without the tearing. "If intent is the issue," said Ms. Kresh, "we know what Freud thought of them."
In a society where the public seems increasingly interested in having its institutions apply the business principles of cost-benefit analysis to their activities, conservation professionals must find a way to define the benefits of the work they do. "In the profit-making world, benefits are quantifiable," remarked Marta de la Torre, the GCI's Training Program Director. "In the conservation world, they are not." As several at the meeting suggested, the conservation field must work at informing the public of conservation's qualitative, if not quantitative, benefits. These can include not only protecting the monetary value of a unique collection or site, but also its educational and research value and, importantly, the public's access to it.
Many believe that tying conservation to public access is key. Indeed, for some institutions, access is a major part of their mandate. "The biggest piece of my pie will go to collections care because the mission of my institution is public access," said Christine Ward, Chief of Archival Services for the New York State Archives and Records.
The emphasis on collections care by many institutions has increased the importance of non-conservation staff—administrators, curators, technicians, and others—to the work of preservation. "There's a growing recognition that conservators can't do it all by themselves," remarked Carolyn Rose, Senior Research Conservator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Ms. Rose and others see this as an opportunity to develop the collections care field. Conservators have to reach out within their own institutions to get their colleagues to take steps with them to improve the environment in which collections are housed.
Debbie Hess Norris of the University of Delaware Art Conservation Department and President of the AIC said that to encourage more dialogue, additional opportunities must be developed for the active participation of collections care professionals (such as managers) within the conservator-based AIC. Meeting participants also endorsed the concept of developing conservation management training, as well as enhancing professional development of conservators, education and training in holistic approaches, and promotion of cultural diversity in the profession.
A related issue is what many consider a shortage in conservation personnel, particularly in certain specialized areas. Smaller institutions and historic properties are especially dependent on volunteers to perform basic tasks that help preserve collections or structures. At National Trust properties, for instance, 80 percent of the collections are staffed by volunteers who perform much of the general maintenance. This situation, though, can have positive aspects. According to Frank Sanchis of the Trust, using volunteers is "a wonderful way to get the public involved in what we do."
Creating A Market
At the end of the meeting, the participants returned to the issue of public awareness and support for conservation. Overwhelmingly the group agreed that collectively their efforts were best directed at promoting conservation, both to the public at large and within their own institutions.
A first step favored by a majority of the group was initiating a market research project that can help conservation achieve the kind of general support the environmental movement enjoys today. Market research might suggest ways that conservation could sell itself by capitalizing on those aspects of its work that have the greatest public appeal. One goal of that research would be identifying segments of the market—from museum visitors to museum managers—that could be targeted.
"Conservators need education on the promotability of what they do," said Gary Burger. He and others urged that thought be given to the kinds of elements that could help conservation connect to the public, whether through an emotional and personal response to objects or places or through controversy, a sense of discovery, or the threat of loss or deterioration that can rouse public concern (as in the case of the Statue of Liberty).
It was the hope of the group that work with marketing experts would lead to a promotional campaign for conservation, one that could utilize the media, well-recognized spokespeople, and perhaps the creation of national or international awards for outstanding achievement in cultural heritage preservation. At the same time, there was strong support for a program to integrate the concept of heritage preservation into education, based on the belief that the best way to create a constituency for conservation efforts in the long term is by reaching out to children. It was felt that marketing research would also help in developing educational programs.
The need to integrate preservation into the programs of cultural heritage institutions was also considered a priority. Action here would include outreach to directors and boards of institutions (and to research professionals), symposia on collections care, and increased communication within institutions.
For each of these areas—marketing and promotion, education, and institutional integration—working groups were formed to develop the actions suggested.
By the meeting's end, what seemed to unite the participants was a desire to help those outside their profession understand the fundamental choices conservation faces and the consequences of those choices—as one attendee put it, making people imagine for a moment "what life would be like without monuments," without the artifacts of our historic and artistic past. What united participants, too, was the recognition that garnering public support for the "preservation of the authentic" was possible, but it would require a collective effort, one in which new tools would have to be employed.
At the opening session of the meeting, one participant spoke of the need to "work together to create new conservation models," while another expressed the view that the gathering was an opportunity not only to "focus on the values we share" but also to consider a reevaluation of conservation. "We should," he said, "periodically reinvent conservation."
At the meeting's conclusion, Miguel Angel Corzo echoed these sentiments in suggesting a "reengineering" of the way conservation professionals connect to those outside the field. "If we're trying to sell a product—the preservation of our heritage—we ought to look carefully at the way we reach out." Now, he said, was the time to do this, and he closed the meeting with an admonition attributed to American baseball great Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road—take it."
The GCI and the NIC are now at work translating the meeting's discussions into action by guiding the development of proposals for both a marketing research project and approaches to education. Elements of the proposals ultimately may include studying the successful strategies of environmental groups to increase public awareness, exploring marketing campaigns related to cultural property, conducting research on a targeted segment of the public, and bringing together marketing experts with representatives of cultural property institutions to begin charting a course for the future. In education, efforts may concentrate on working with museum education departments, as well as exploring long-term strategies for reaching out to young people.
Jeffrey Levin is the Editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.