An underlying principle of modern medicine is that it is far better to prevent a problem than to have to treat it. The same is true in modern conservation practice. To the extent that we can, preventing problems is a safer and more efficient way to care for the vast amount of cultural heritage left to us. This approach, better known as preventive conservation, is most effectively applied to collections as a whole rather than simply to individual objects.
Preventive conservation has long been a strategic interest of the Getty Conservation Institute, and today it is manifested in the GCI's Managing Collection Environments Initiative (MCE), a multiyear undertaking that seeks to address a number of research questions and practical issues related to the control and management of collection environments. In recent years, the conservation field has been debating changes to what—for decades—have been environmental guidelines for collections. Among MCE's objectives, through research and training, is to provide conservation professionals with scientific findings and strategic approaches that balance the preservation needs of collections with the resources available to the institutions responsible for their stewardship.
This edition of Conservation Perspectives offers a multiplicity of viewpoints on the current exploration of environmental practices. Leading off is the feature article by Jonathan Ashley-Smith, which takes as its thesis the critical idea that management of collection environments requires a holistic approach that goes well beyond the technical. A museum, as Jonathan notes, is a complex and collective administrative enterprise. To create a collection environment that minimizes degradation within the collections—while not compromising access to them—requires navigating through a variety of human, political, and economic factors, as well as scientific ones.
The first of our shorter articles looks at MCE itself. Foekje Boersma, Joel Taylor, Kathleen Dardes, and Michal Lukomski describe the thinking behind the initiative and its various components, which include scientific research, fieldwork, and educational activities. The second article comes from Roman Kozlowski, head of the Cultural Heritage Research Group at the Jerzy Haber Institute in Kraków, Poland, who writes about evidence-based decision-making, particularly with respect to reducing climate-induced damage to humidity-sensitive materials in museum collections. In the third article, Nigel Blades and Katy Lithgow describe the major effort underway to improve the interior environment of Knole—one of England's largest and most historic houses—which contains an extraordinary collection of furniture and paintings. The edition wraps up with a lively conversation among Julian Bickersteth, Lukasz Bratasz, and Jane Henderson, who delve into the meaning of "sustainability" and discuss the issue of balancing present accessibility to collections with a responsibility to the future.
As noted above, the conservation field is currently engaged in sorting through the scientific, economic, and social implications of environmental management of collections. The array of ideas expressed in the pages that follow will, I hope, contribute to and advance this reassessment that is well underway.
Timothy P. Whalen