This spring we asked several members of the profession long associated with efforts to promote preventive conservation to sit down together to discuss the subject. They included Luiz Souza, director of the Centro de Conservação e Restauração de Bens Culturais Móveis (CECOR) at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil; Colin Pearson, codirector of the Cultural Heritage Research Center at the University of Canberra in Australia; and Catherine Antomarchi, director of the Collections Program at the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome.
They spoke with Kathleen Dardes, a GCI project specialist, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.
Kathleen Dardes: Have you seen acceptance of preventive conservation increase much over the past 10 years in the regions of the world where you work?
Luiz Souza: Ten years ago the question was "What is preventive conservation?" Today most conservators, museum personnel, and even some museum directors have some understanding of it. Today there is an interest in the field because we have been directing people's attention to some very specific topics and to broader concerns as well. Now we have a responsibility to respond to questions that have been raised during these past 10 years, so that people won't be frustrated.
Jeffrey Levin: What are some of those questions?
Luiz Souza: Technical questions, like planning building renovations, finishing off walls. You can't just say to people, "You have to think about what kind of paint you are going to use," because then they say, "I need to know what kind of paint."
Also, 10 years ago preventive conservation was looking at the object. Then we widened our borders to see objects in their physical context, the room, the climate, the building. This was the first political jump. Now I see—and this is very recent—that the next jump is its context in society. What's the role of that building in that community?
Kathleen Dardes: Do you mean how is it valued?
Luiz Souza: Yes, how is it valued. How important it is for
the mayor, for example, if he has to choose between dealing with
plants or museums? The context now is the social environment. If the museum is in a city, what is its relationship to urban planning and to the problems of urban life? This is the next important idea to get across.
Kathleen Dardes: This suggests we should be thinking of new collaborations.
Luiz Souza: Definitely. Today we have not just conservators dealing with conservation, but engineers, architects, scientist—all these people together, open to each others' contributions.
Jeffrey Levin: This underscores preventive conservation's multidisciplinary nature.
Luiz Souza: Yes, but really practicing it. Not just discourse, not just talk, but really facing it. It's not easy.
Colin Pearson: In Australia, there are often funds to implement recommendations relating to preventive conservation. In the last few years, we've had some new museums and galleries built where, at the design stage, conservation has been involved with regard to climate and to light levels. However, it doesn't always flow through to the final product. But it's definitely there at the design level. I was talking with one institution recently in connection with a new cultural center that has been designed completely using passive climate control. We've been involved from the beginning, looking at plans, and we're going to be monitoring the development of the museum over the next few years to see if it has achieved its objectives. This could become an exemplar project for other museums.
A major development in the Pacific region is the Pacific Islands Museums Association, which was established with significant input from ICCROM and which is now taking over the development of conservation, museum studies, and museum management and training in the Pacific area. They have been concentrating on collections care and basic preventive conservation.
Catherine Antomarchi: One of the regions where I have been particularly involved is sub-Saharan Africa. There, 10 years ago, the concept of preventive conservation really did not exist. Collections were literally disappearing, and professionals were left to themselves with no training opportunities, no resources. The situation was such as to require a major effort, and ICCROM responded with the PREMA 1990 - 2000 program. Today preventive conservation is largely diffused within most museums of the area. Another very positive result is that Benin and Kenya took the initiative to create two structures that will continue regional training and awareness programs in this field. This has created hope for future development.
Another region where larger acceptance of preventive conservation can be seen is Europe. In the last 10 years, we saw the development of national programs such as the Delta Plan in the Netherlands, and the increase in training opportunities with, for example, the creation of a special postgraduate diploma on preventive conservation in France. More generally, we saw the creation of new structures and new professional profiles linked to preventive conservation.
Perhaps the next most important challenge is to get involved with the public.
Jeffrey Levin: How would you define "getting involved with the public?"
Catherine Antomarchi: It is important that the public be aware of the fragility of heritage—not only of its value but also that it can deteriorate and disappear. Professionals cannot do miracles if the public, which should also feel responsible for taking care of the heritage, does not help them. Public awareness was recently made a new mandate for ICCROM by its member states. Today, in line with other institutions, we are exploring various ways to build close and fruitful relationships between heritage professionals and the public. We also work to involve the media.
Kathleen Dardes: ICCROM had a project on teamwork for preventive conservation that included museum directors as part of the process. That must have been interesting.
Catherine Antomarchi: The idea of the project was that instead of having individuals, we had museums as participants. Museum directors were invited to identify the ways in which preventive conservation was ignored in their institutions. What were the weaknesses in the system? Was it a problem of climate? Was it a lack of public awareness? Was it a problem of training or of assigning responsibility within the staff?
Those directors, back in their museums, had to establish a team—guards, educators, conservators, administrators—to work out a plan of action together. What was very interesting is that each museum developed its own objectives and strategy. The project resulted in a great variety of products: one museum created a preventive conservation advisory service, others developed education programs for schools or videos for museum visitors, or they published basic manuals.
In this continuing project, the challenge is, first, to get the team to last—which is difficult sometimes—and, second, to increase the number and variety of museums involved. It is great that the museums in Belgium, Northern Ireland, Portugal, and France that participated in the first project are now advisors to the second set of museums from other countries in the Teamwork 2 project.
Jeffrey Levin: In the regions where you work, do you generally see museums accepting institutional responsibility for preventive conservation? Do you see conservators gaining more authority in various aspects of the museum environment?
Colin Pearson: Now it's actually much more common to have a position within the museum as a preventive conservator, or somebody responsible for preventive conservation—which, of course, includes climate monitoring, storage, transport, exhibition, light levels, and so on. In the last year, two or three positions have been created that weren't there before. Of course, preventive conservation is everybody's responsibility—but to make sure that it is promoted, you actually employ a person to take on that responsibility. Because if it's everybody's responsibility, sometimes nothing happens.
Luiz Souza: One thing that we have to focus on is temporary exhibitions. With globalization, cultural objects are moving much more than in the past. Preventive conservation will be key in preserving these objects. Think about a painting or a polychrome sculpture, for example, that has never left its original church or museum, and now there are demands for it to go to Paris or to another city. In some places—Canada or the United States or Europe—this is more traditional. But this is becoming more common in our countries. And preventive conservation awareness is not enough. You really need to have hands-on, practical work done, because the objects are moving a lot. This is one aspect that 10 years ago was completely different.
Catherine Antomarchi: I'd like to make a point about the increasing movement of objects. If we consider preventive conservation not as a fix but as real anticipation, then our action goes beyond preparing staff to pack objects appropriately and to organize their transport and their unpacking.
Our preventive conservation action should also focus on changing the attitude of the public—and of decision makers—who are becoming used to considering cultural heritage as a consumer product.
A role of preventive conservation, perhaps, is to help the public revalue the heritage that is locally available. Not just the big, publicized international exhibitions, but perhaps the collections that have always been here.
Kathleen Dardes: What would you like to see for preventive conservation 10 years from now?
Luis Souza: I'd like to see different professionals working together. Because sometimes we preventive conservation professionals have to play the role of building bridges. Last week, I was working in one situation where I was the bridge between the engineer and the architect—a chemist working to make both happy. So I would be pleased when I am no longer necessary, when people like conservators, engineers, and architects are really able to talk to one another without an interpreter.
Kathleen Dardes: What would make that happen?
Luis Souza: Education. Education is something that goes far beyond training. To say someone is well educated in conservation—this means that he is able to understand the multidisciplinary aspects of the problems that we face. This is education. To be trained—I can train a dog to do something. But I can't educate a dog.
I am already working in this multidisciplinary way. The team I have includes one civil engineer and electrical engineer, one mechanical engineer, two architects, one conservator, one scientist, a museum curator—working together and working for the market. We want other people to do this. So I would be very happy when people could talk without the need of interpreters.
Kathleen Dardes: Luiz, you and Colin are directors of major conservation education programs. Do any of your students see preventive conservation as a primary career path?
Colin Pearson: What's new is that these positions are being advertised. Some students who would normally train as conservators—and then have a specialization within conservation, for example, in paintings, works on paper, or objects—have decided at some stage that they prefer to go down the path of being a preventive conservator. And that is fine. The opportunities aren't as big, and it is a relatively new approach. And they are not being trained differently at the moment, because it's such a new development; however, preventive conservation is given significant coverage in their training program.
Kathleen Dardes: In Brazil there seems to be a lot of interest in some schools of museology in preventive conservation. How do you see this contributing to better care and management for collections in Brazil?
Luiz Souza: There is a problem with some museology courses in Brazil. I don't know if this is the rule in other countries, but I am particularly concerned that the students may leave the course thinking that they don't need conservators. The museologists claim they have the necessary training—plus they have the conceptual approach to the object, which they claim the conservators don't have. This is not true—and it creates an unnecessary conflict. The same happens sometimes with architects. Architects are the ones who are going to manage interventions in a building, because by law they have the right to do so. Conservators are just seen as complementary workers or something like that—like the plumber or the roofer. So for both architecture courses and museology courses, we have to overcome these professional disputes.
Catherine Antomarchi: You asked, where do we want to see preventive conservation in 10 years' time? I would be happy if the public were more aware and actively involved. In Rome this year, hundreds of thousands of people are going to the same places to look at the same monuments. So provisions have been made to put barriers around monuments and isolate them, just like objects in showcases. Is it a fashion? I don't know. Too often, heritage is protected by cutting it off from people. But does this make people more responsible? Respectful? There is nothing new here, but hopefully in 10 years' time, cutting off will not be the safest solution.
I also hope that conservators are given the recognition they deserve and that work on historic buildings and heritage is regulated. Also, we need to work with institutions like churches and temples. How prepared are they to protect the heritage they steward? We need to pay attention not only to the heritage that is in public domain but also to that of smaller communities—Vive la diversité!
Colin Pearson: I hope for more involvement by the community, in particular by indigenous people, in looking after their own heritage. In the Pacific, people have always looked after their own heritage. They don't think about museums as a way of preserving heritage. They've looked after their own personal collections and the things that they treasure as a community. They've always done it, and I would hope that they would be encouraged to keep on doing it, rather than suddenly putting things into museums—which means that things have to be looked after in a different way, and often not nearly as well as they have always been.
Something I would like to see well established 10 years down the track is passive climate control—to really look at creating stable environments in museums of all shapes and sizes without using air-conditioning. Stable environments can be achieved with the right building materials, the right architecture, and the right design.
Luiz Souza: And the right architect!
Colin Pearson: I agree. But it also has to do with the design schedule from the client and what the client is insisting on. I've seen museum designs in which the first line is "all efforts must be made to use a passive climate control approach." But the architect takes the easy way out and air-conditions the museum. So now somebody has to provide the money for air-conditioning and then, in fact, to pay the high cost of maintaining and running it. For the architects, it's no longer their problem.
There are so many materials available these days to help stabilize relative humidity and temperature in a building, and a whole range of approaches can be taken to provide a reasonably stable climate. These should be encouraged. Now you might say that we need one room, one storage area, one gallery that is air-conditioned, because traveling exhibitions often demand it. Okay, you accommodate that. You've got one major air-conditioned gallery for traveling exhibitions. Everything else uses passive climate control.
Jeffrey Levin: It does seem as though a lot has changed in the practice of preventive conservation in the last 10 years—which is a relatively short period of time.
Catherine Antomarchi: There really have been big changes. Heritage has become more and more numerous and encompasses a larger variety of elements, some of which have only a very tiny part that is tangible. This increased number and diversity create new challenges in documentation, storage, care, and intervention choices.
The deterioration factors and risks have multiplied, requiring a change of approach—more surveying and more management skills. Also, the conservation field has changed, involving a larger number of professional profiles and players. Here, the need is to communicate better, to mediate solutions.
Kathleen Dardes: It seems that although we've recognized that the definition of heritage is expanding to include tangible and intangible heritage, we haven't yet assessed what this means for conservation professionals—and whether we in the profession are all going in the same direction.
Colin Pearson: At a recent meeting I attended in Nara, Japan, the whole question of tangible and intangible cultural heritage came up, and we all agreed that we should not separate them. You can't start talking about preservation of one without the other. It is really understanding and accepting the cultural context of objects and sites and places—and taking them all into account when you start doing the conservation work.