By Carolyn L. Rose

Museum conservation practices shifted in approaches and goals during the last century, especially in the last 30 years. Some changes were the result of a maturing of the field. Others were a consequence of changes in museums themselves, including growing professionalism among staff; redefinitions of museums and their roles and responsibilities; and the impact of political, cultural, and economic pressures on museum management. National and international museum and conservation organizations, as well as professional training programs, were influential in this process. Equally important has been the development of preventive conservation, with a collections-based orientation supporting the mission and goals of the museum.

Historically, museum conservation centered in the larger institutions and emphasized restoration techniques and the application of scientific methods to the examination of objects and the identification of materials. Museum publications disseminated conservation information, and annual reports discussed treatment and research, which focused on the fine arts and classical archaeology. Natural history, ethnographic, and historical collections usually were prepared by the collector/scientist/curator or assistants, or they were not treated at all, except with pesticides. Exceptions were items for exhibition, in which case exhibit staff would clean, restore, and sometimes repaint them. This traditional approach to the preservation of collections has gradually changed in many institutions throughout the world; in others, restoration and exhibition practices remain the same.

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The two decades following the Second World War set the stage for new developments in conservation in the 1970s. During this time, museums and their collections grew in number and diversity, as museums redefined their role as educational institutions. National and international professional organizations developed conservation codes of ethics, standards of practice, and museum accreditation programs. By the 1970s, many major art museums employed conservators, and interns from new conservation training programs were more common. Museum conservation scientists, although still few in number, were conducting experiments to improve treatment techniques and test new synthetic materials. However, conservation was not well integrated into museum activities, and conservators were generally assigned to a specific division or a curator, according to their expertise.

The 1970s was a period of reassessment as museums struggled with shifting priorities, professionalism, fund-raising, and increased visitor access. The rising value of museum collections and the importance of their conservation was increasingly noted by national and international preservation advocates, influencing leaders in the museum community and government funding. Many institutions centralized conservation functions, and new conservation laboratories and scientific facilities were developed in larger museums. Conservation documentation improved because of new professional standards, and some institutions developed computer databases to integrate conservation data with other records. Conservation laboratory directors received more recognition, higher salaries, and seats on museum implementation committees. However, as students from conservation training programs became interns and then employees, and their responsibilities broadened, the role of this new, academically trained staff in the traditional, hierarchical system was not always clear. Thus, while conservation was included in museum mission statements and the services of the conservation staff were considered desirable, conservators were not regularly involved in decision making. This was especially evident in exhibition development, as conservators became more concerned with the museum environment and its impact on the preservation of collections on display.

Exhibition was a driving force in conservation work in many museums, and as a result, conservation became increasingly important. However, the new focus on traveling blockbuster shows with hundreds of objects, new technology, and demanding, fast-paced production schedules was antithetical to the slow-paced, thorough conservation approaches traditionally employed. As conservators were forced into a reactive position, conservation controls tightened, written procedures increased, and conservation staff relationships with other museum colleagues became strained. Compounding the situation were educators' mandates to make the exhibitions—and objects—more accessible to, and interactive with, museum visitors.

During the next decade, some challenges were ameliorated in part by three factors: training of museum personnel, accountability, and funding. All led to the development of preventive conservation, a holistic approach to identifying all factors (including policies, procedures, and lack of training) that could contribute to the deterioration of collections—and the development and implementation of systematic, practical approaches (frequently based on risk assessment) to mitigate them.

In the 1980s, the number of seminars, workshops, and courses in collections care and management dramatically increased. The role of the collections manager gradually evolved, especially in natural history and larger historical museums. Concerns about the ability of museums, especially small ones, to meet standard requirements were addressed with new government programs and grants for improving management and conservation. From these initiatives grew conservation surveys and assessment programs that produced quantitative information on the needs of collections, as well as a foundation for developing strategic plans for collections care. Biodiversity issues and new initiatives in the preservation of natural history collections spurred additional requests for space, funding, and the development of appropriate and cost-effective conservation methods for large research collections. The preservation of related documentation, such as archival records (including field notes and audiovisual materials) and specimen samples (such as microscope slides), added new challenges for conservators. Interest in these materials and the employment of more comprehensive conservation approaches also resulted in stronger ties between museums and the library and archives communities, where preservation planning had been practiced for years. Some funding programs began to coordinate the preservation of museum collections located in historic buildings with the preservation of the building itself. These activities led to an increase in systematic conservation planning and the inclusion of conservators in management planning teams. In addition, conservators became more involved in public awareness campaigns and outreach activities, such as "conservation on display" exhibits, public tours, and the creation of visible storage.

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In the United States, new museum conservation projects resulted in increased use of regional conservation laboratories and private conservators to conduct surveys and treat collections. In some instances, regional laboratories were set up within the museums, delicately balancing the needs of the museum's own collections with those of outside museums and collectors paying for services. This challenge became acute later as museum management considered the fund-raising potential of these laboratories.

In a number of countries, the use of outside contractors, including conservators, grew more common in museum projects, especially exhibitions. In some institutions, curators and conservators felt they were losing control of the collections, and that exhibition and conservation activities should remain integrated with the other functions of the museum to maintain museum standards and procedures, such as documentation. In other instances, outside contractors enabled permanent staff to undertake important activities that otherwise would not have been possible, and provided expertise in specialized areas. Whether this approach has led to a decrease in permanent conservation staff in museums or been the salvation for conservation in times of downsizing remains under debate.

Discussions began in the 1980s concerning the appropriate preservation of cultural objects. There was growing interest in the museum's place in society, cultural diversity, and community participation. In addition to ethnic-based museums, cultural centers were established; especially noteworthy were those created by Native American groups. As conservators consulted cultural representatives in order to explore traditional methods of preservation and to learn about cultural and religious beliefs and practices, approaches often were modified to reflect cultural concerns. In addition, new procedures were developed as some museums housed collections that were regularly used or cared for by tribal members.

This was also a period of outreach to developing museums throughout the world, and conservators were frequently included in teams sent to assist museums and cultural centers in their formation. In addition, new international preventive conservation programs were established, complementing antecedent, treatment-based programs in several countries. A goal in these undertakings was developing indigenous trainers to foster local preservation initiatives.

In the 1990s, preventive conservation gained popularity. Some reasons for this were related to general museum concerns, such as accountability for all of the collections, and the adoption of strategic planning and other management techniques to secure and allocate resources. It also reflected a better understanding of the positive impact of a holistic approach to preservation, and the need to involve various staff in achieving conservation goals. The concepts of shared responsibilities and an integrated approach to conservation grew out of museum training courses and programs, whose graduates were more knowledgeable about a wide range of museum activities and goals and were now assuming decision-making roles. Team management systems and increased electronic mail communication among staff members fostered participation.

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Attitudes and practices in conservation also changed. Not only were more cautious, less-intrusive approaches to treatment advocated, but also the methods and goals for the treatment of artistic and scientific collections were reevaluated, especially those created with new mediums and technology. Questions concerning an artist's intent, the function of the museum that held the object, who owns the object, and who decides how certain cultural objects should be used or displayed also were being asked. Relationships to the natural environment, intangible qualities of an object, and repatriation issues posed additional considerations.

Today, as 30 years ago, we have established patterns that will foster significant change in the future. Fundamental are changes in the ways museums are managed and supported. The proportion of government support for museums has decreased worldwide, earned revenue has become more important, and marketing strategies are used to attract new audiences. Although museums continue to increase in number and collections, and visitor numbers have doubled in the last decade, major museums worldwide have dramatically reduced their staffs, including conservation positions. As many museums are promoted as social centers, forums, and agents of change, some suggest that the objects they hold are not as important as they once were.

This shift to public service affects how conservation strategies must be developed if they are to compete with the large expense of dynamic public programming. Conservation managers are required to employ more sophisticated management techniques and to participate in marketing strategies, donor cultivation, and difficult decision making concerning collections use. In some instances, the concepts of cost recovery and the for-profit conservation laboratory are being explored. Other avenues include public awareness activities with conservation exhibitions, conservation clinics, and partnerships with local organizations and the public to "adopt" museum objects to be preserved.

Electronic media, World Wide Web sites, new technologies, and virtual museums have engendered other creative conservation approaches. Increased collection access through digitization is widely practiced, and the electronic restoration of object images, rather than the objects themselves, is being explored. Communication through electronic media enables conservators and restorers, once isolated from current developments, to readily access materials, take courses, and ask questions on the Internet. Partnerships and international projects have exponentially increased training opportunities, providing practical, basic information in a number of languages, assisting museums in the care of collections. Preventive conservation literature—including scientific investigations and information on appropriate materials, as well as collections care techniques—is having substantial impact on the preservation of collections worldwide. In addition, technological advances provide tools to develop new approaches and techniques, and enable us to reexamine and assess object condition and treatment records, as well as environmental data—information needed to plan for the future.

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While the last decade has been challenging for museum conservation, even more challenges lie ahead. What really constitutes a museum today? Certainly it is not what we thought of at the beginning of the century, or even 30 years ago. As museums struggle with evolving and often mandated roles as businesses rather than institutes of higher education or research, and as entertainment centers rather than collection repositories, many traditional conservation approaches are outdated. To be effective, conservation strategies must consider the museum's changing objectives.

In a time when the museum emphasis is on short-term goals, conservation professionals must make special efforts to redirect focus to long-term museum preservation responsibilities for the collections held in trust. New conservation paradigms need to be developed and new skill sets acquired in management, organization, and planning. We should reassess how conservators operate in museums and the methods by which conservators, scientists, administrators, and other museum professionals are trained. Creative funding strategies must be developed to support conservation staffs to maintain the collections, carry out treatments, conduct research, and oversee a variety of collection care activities, providing continuity and upholding standards. It is essential to develop partnerships with different kinds of organizations to join in this responsibility, and to leverage precious resources. Fundamental as well is continuing to share conservation strategies that can be modified and accepted by other museums, within their own cultural, political, and economic climate, in order to sustain their capabilities in the 21st century.

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Carolyn L. Rose is chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is an adjunct associate professor at George Washington University. In recent years she has served as chairman of the board of directors of the National Institute for Conservation (now Heritage Preservation), chairman of the objects group of the American Institute for Conservation, and president of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections.