In June 1997, Harold Williams, president and chief executive officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust, delivered the George Stout Lecture at the annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation, held in San Diego, California.
In his lecture, entitled "Conservation for Information: Beyond Aesthetics," Mr. Williams focused on the importance of preserving not simply an object's aesthetic qualities but also the information about the past that the object can provide. "While the object alone can have profound aesthetic appeal," he observed, "its real beauty and power may lie in the meaning behind its creation, use, transport, or destruction." That means preserving, as best as possible, the context of an object and the "cultural accretions" it may have acquired over time.
Below is an excerpt from Mr. Williams's address:
- It would seem an important contribution for those charged
with protecting the objects themselves to encourage wherever possible
the preservation of the information attached to an object. Conservators
could be quite indispensable to this task of interpretation, for
the protection of the object and its record so often falls to them.
So little of the ancient past survives to the present, and while not everything will have the same importance, one never knows where the next critical body of information will hide. I am reminded of a simple example used by an archaeology professor to impress on his students the importance of context: a piece of a blue and white china cup with no handles had very different things to say, depending on where one had found examples of such an itemin a storage room in China, in the remains of a 19th-century privy in northern California, or under the foundations of the First courthouse built in Cape Town, South Africa. Imagine the different meanings this small object would have!
Ideally, the work of protecting and revealing the record should be the common ground of the conservator, the archaeologist, the curator, and the scientist. Practitioners in the field of conservation seem to have recognized in recent years the great benefits of successful collaborations among these fields, but the potential of this partnership is not yet fully appreciated or exploited.
Together they can address problems more effectively than each can alone; but perhaps more importantly, they can influence each other to recognize the subtleties of approach specific to their respective fields of endeavor.