By Frank Matero

Just connect. --E.M. Forster, Howard's End

Over the past decade, aspects of heritage have become important issues in the discourse on place, cultural identity, and ownership of the past. Yet for all its engagement with the function, presentation, and interpretation of heritage as material culture, conservation lags behind in the larger debate, both in terms of a critical reassessment of its own principles and in dialogue with related fields, such as design and aesthetics, as well as history, anthropology, and the other social sciences. This lag is due in part to conservation's recent and somewhat insular professional development and its avoidance of a critical examination of the inherited historical and cultural narratives constructed through past motives of preservation.

Conservation's complex theoretical and methodological approach—based on art historical, anthropological, and scientific inquiry—renders it a powerful vehicle for addressing the questions of form, meaning, and effect of human works. If we accept the most basic definition of conservation as the protection of cultural works from deterioration and loss, then heritage conservation contributes to memory, itself basic to human existence. Conservation as an intellectual pursuit is predicated on the belief that knowledge, memory, and experience are tied to cultural constructs, especially to material culture. Conservation—whether of a painting, building, or landscape—helps extend these places and things into the present and establishes a form of mediation critical to the interpretive process that reinforces these aspects of human existence. The objectives of conservation also involve evaluating and interpreting cultural heritage for its preservation, safeguarding it now and for the future. In this respect, conservation itself is a way of extending and solidifying cultural identities and historical narratives over time, through the valorization and interpretation of cultural heritage.

As an academic endeavor, conservation is a modern concept born out of the notion of history as something that is linear and that has come to an end. Artifacts and sites are divorced from their past by the present's historical consciousness, which dictates new motives and methods for their use and preservation. As Paul Phillipot has noted, in most contemporary professional contexts, conservation has become the designated term for "an objective, scientific approach to the past in the form of historical knowledge, not the same as the continuity guaranteed by former tradition; a modern phenomenon of maintaining living contact with cultural works of the past."

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Such motives and methods found various modes of theoretical and applied expression through the application of historical and scientific precepts during the late 19th and 20th centuries. The resulting principles attempted to define a new approach that related the aesthetic and historical values of art and architecture to the material form, to ensure the transmission of the whole work as both idea and thing. Contemporary theorists such as Vittorio Gregotti have explained conservation as an anti-Modernist/ post-Modernist stance, founded on reactions to notions of progress and based on a belief in the value and legitimacy of all past artistic contributions. Yet in the end, conservation is a critical act. Decisions regarding what is conserved and how it is presented are products of contemporary values and beliefs about the past's relationship to the present.

This relationship—and the stabilizing effect that selected things and places have by connecting us to a personal or collective past—is universal. It has become all the more pronounced in the last 50 years, as rapid change and increased mobility have caused a certain anxiety and dislocation. This is evident in the resurgence of nostalgia in design, in historical theme parks, in site reconstructions, and in the romanticization of tradition and so-called traditional living. With the escalating development and commodification of heritage for recreational, economic, and political purposes, the input of conservation professionals is now all the more critical.

Conservation Principles
Since conservation's emergence in the 20th century as a bona fide field of academic study and professional practice, it has matured and specialized as a distinct discipline built on a synthesis of theory and methodology drawn from the humanities and sciences. As early as the first International Congress of Architects in Madrid in 1904, numerous attempts were made to codify a set of universal principles to govern interventions to built works of historic and cultural significance. Despite their differences, all these documents identify the conservation process as one governed by absolute respect for the aesthetic, historic, and physical integrity of the work, and one requiring a high sense of moral responsibility. Implicit is the notion of cultural heritage as a physical resource that is valuable and irreplaceable—an inheritance that promotes cultural continuity. This last concern has found renewed expression in recent charters focused on process and more inclusive definitions of heritage, authenticity, human rights, and values.

The notion of ethics and ethical practice has long been associated with conservation, perhaps most explicitly in the 1960s with the publication of the Standards of Practice and Professional Relationships for Conservators (The Murray Pease Report), adopted in 1963, and The Code of Ethics for Art Conservators, adopted in 1967 by the IIC-American Group. If we take ethics to mean the moral principles or rules of conduct by which a person is guided, then, when applied collectively to members of a profession, ethics defines the duties and responsibilities members have to the public, to one another, and to themselves in regard to the exercise of their profession. Implicit in such principles are notions of right and wrong and actions appropriate and inappropriate, which are based in part on criteria established by the profession. These principles, in turn, are often applied in the creation of policy or plans of action.

Implicit in the word and concept of heritage are the notions of value, birthright, and obligation. Each of these notions establishes a moral imperative in the treatment of this collective human inheritance. In response, contemporary conservation has developed the following principles as the foundation for ethical professional practice:

  • the obligation to perform research and documentation; that is, to record physical, archival, and other evidence before and after any intervention to generate and safeguard knowledge embodied as process or product;
  • the obligation to respect cumulative age-value; that is, to acknowledge the site or work as a cumulative physical record of human activity embodying cultural beliefs, values, materials, and techniques, and displaying the passage of time;
  • the obligation to safeguard authenticity—a culturally relative condition associated with the fabric or fabrication of a thing or place as a way of ensuring authorship or witness of a time and place;
  • the obligation to do no harm, performing minimal intervention that will reestablish structural and aesthetic legibility and meaning with the least physical interference—or that will allow other options and further treatment in the future.

As summarized in the Australia ICOMOS Charter (Burra Charter), the aim of conservation is to retain or recover the cultural significance of the thing or place, and it must include provision for its security, its maintenance, and its future. In most cases this approach is based, first and foremost, on respect for the existing fabric, and it involves minimal physical intervention, especially with regard to traces of alterations related to the history and use of the thing or place. The conservation policy appropriate to a thing or place must first be determined by an understanding of its cultural significance and physical condition, which in turn should determine which uses are compatible with the formal and material reality—not the reverse.

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Preservation and Conservation
Contemporary practice has evolved an entire lexicon of intervention strategies based on the degree of intervention. The result is a sophisticated, though sometimes confusing, definition of approaches that depend largely on the type and context of heritage. In certain places, including the United States, the terms preservation and conservation have come into the professional language as distinct concepts. Explicit and unique to the definition of preservation is the notion of retaining the status quo or the means by which the existing form, integrity, and materials of a work or place are maintained and deterioration is retarded. Conservation, in the same context, has been relegated to mean the whole spectrum of technology applied to safeguarding cultural heritage.

Both terms have as their fundamental objective the protection and transmission of cultural heritage. However, whereas preservation seeks to safeguard and explain by maintaining the existing physical state—or at least the illusion of no change—conservation, in its more broadly used meaning, seeks to establish continuity through controlled change. Both maintain contact with the past through the identification, transmission, and protection of that which is considered culturally valuable. Their differences in approach can be explained partly in response to negative attitudes toward past restorations in Europe and North America which, by today's standards, deprived the works of material integrity and historical and cultural authenticity—themselves culturally relative constructs. Both definitions depend on each other for meaning. A clear understanding of their usage is critical.

For some traditional societies, the concepts and practice of conservation are often viewed as antithetical to the role of continuing traditions, or those beliefs, actions, and objects valued by a group and considered worthy of passing on from one generation to the next. But while continuity of tradition may be critical to ensuring cultural identity, it is important to remember that tradition is as dynamic as cultural change itself. Only by recognizing the changing nature of tradition as constructed memory and cultural identities can a community responsibly manage its present and future through personal and collective interpretations of the past, rather than through fictions imposed from the outside. Conservation, like history, represents the conscious commitment to cultural continuity where living memory ends.

All conservation is a critical act, one of interpretation. We preserve with intent—and it is that intent that must be continually questioned, evaluated, and modified as necessary. By interpretation, I mean the relation between the visual work itself (thing or place) and seeing the work and experiencing it. As Goethe once wrote, "we see what we know." I would add, we know what we see.

By defining interpretation as an open relationship between the work, seeing the work, and experiencing it, I am stressing vision as the major way of accessing material culture. Certainly vision dominates our immediate sensory and cognitive transactions with the physical world. Yet how reliable is the visual as a source of information that helps us to understand the original meaning of the work by those who made or used it? Conservators have long appreciated the visual and physical transformations all material works experience in an attempt to preserve them. Despite the ultimate futility, we persevere in attempting to extend and make accessible the life and meaning of an existing (past) work for the present, not for the future. Certainly our emotional and intellectual responses to things and places are based on information beyond sight. These responses usually depend on learned meaning (such as by members of a particular group with a direct relationship with the work), taste (connoisseurship), or experiences and scholarship.

This brings us to the problematic nature of culture. The concept of culture has provided a platform for the study of humans as sentient social beings since the mid-19th century, extending into the 20th century with the development of human psychology and the emphasis on the importance of the individual. Fundamental to culture and cultural relativism is the notion of value—a concept implicit in the meaning of interpretation and, therefore, by extension, of conservation. Cultural relativism asserts that since each culture has its own inherent integrity with unique values and practices, heritage must be contextualized. The role of value in the determination and preservation of cultural property has long been recognized. However, who determines that value—and how it plays out through "appropriate" methods of use, presentation, intervention, and ownership—has become a major issue for heritage today.

In conservation, this issue has been explored most commonly as "cultural appropriateness." Professionals—intervening as cultural "outsiders" of objects and places that retain meaning for affiliated groups, such as indigenous peoples—shape conservation treatments and policies in accordance with the cultural beliefs and values of those groups. Originally relegated to the treatment of native ethnographic objects and, more recently, traditional cultural places, the circle has widened as issues of affiliated ownership and power are now applied and challenged by many different groups to all forms of cultural property. Conversely, the concepts of world heritage and universal conservation principles applicable to all heritage have also seen renewed vigor in the face of rampant relativism—not unlike the notion of a list of endangered species or the concept of universal human rights. Culturally responsive conservation and universal notions of heritage preservation, however, are not philosophically or morally opposed to one another.

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Conservation as a Discipline and Profession
Conservation emerges as a hybrid discipline dedicated to safeguarding cultural heritage by observing and analyzing the evolution, deterioration, and maintenance of material culture; conducting investigations to determine the cause, effect, and solution of problems; and directing remedial and preventive interventions focused on maintaining the integrity and quality of the existing historic fabric and its attending practices and associations. Conservation, like law, theology, medicine, and architecture, is a learned profession; academic education plays an important role in preparation for practice. As a profession, its activities are subject to theoretical analysis and modification through experience. The theory and practice of professional work in conservation draw upon this knowledge to create new approaches so that real problems can be solved synthetically. Like other professions, there are accredited academic programs and professional organizations guided by established standards of practice and codes of ethics. Unlike other professions, however, there is still no certification or licensing.

Science and technology, often associated with conservation, require some clarification, as they are often taken to represent the goals or methods of conservation. By science, what is meant is a systematic and structured way of understanding the material world, different from the approaches of history, philosophy, or aesthetics. Technology is the application of science, or a body of methods and materials, to achieve the stated objectives. If we accept the premise that the practice of conservation began with the study of the underlying causes of deterioration, then it was in the 1930s and 1940s, along with the development of museum conservation laboratories and specialists, that the field was born.

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Yet within the understood limitations of the scientific method to generate certain kinds of data, conservation still begins and ends as an interpretation of the work whose questions reside in the humanities and the sciences. One is not only dealing with the physical aspects of human-made things and places but with complex cultural questions of beliefs, convictions, and emotions, as well as of aesthetic, material, and functional significance. Science helps to interpret, but it cannot and should not create absolute meanings or singularly represent one truth.

Today, conservation has become a major strategy in shaping and interpreting our cultural world. Every conservation measure is a form of argument that touches upon cultural values and the definition, treatment, interpretation, and use of the past. Often historical arguments for or against the identification, designation, and physical retention of cultural heritage are based on an epistemology of scholarship and facts. Scholarship and facts, however, are explanations that serve the goals of conservation and are a product of the academic subculture and of their time and place. Still, they afford a method of approach that acknowledges both historical and critical analyses of interpretation. Cultural relativism, like time itself, is something conservators must explore, if only to reject its relevance to a given problem. It is time to reenter the dialogue beyond our immediate concerns and to contribute our knowledge and expertise to larger social and global issues.

Within the contemporary discipline of conservation, it is possible to find any number of incompatible, diametrically opposed viewpoints and work methods—from the idealist one that hopes for an impossible return of the object, structure, or site to an origin that can never be established with any certainty, to the pragmatic one that permissively treats as historical values all the alterations made over time. To this must be added the recognition of cultural and community ownership and the input of those other interested groups in the decision-making processes that remain the primary responsibility of the profession.

The basic tenets of conservation are not the sole responsibility of any one group. They apply instead to all those involved in the care and management of cultural heritage, and they represent general standards of approach and methodology. Such methods are founded on a profound and exact knowledge of the various histories of the thing or place and its context, on the materiality of its physical fabric, on its cultural meanings and values over time, and on its role in—and effect on—current local and distant societies. While this approach requires the application of a variety of specialized knowledge, ideally the process must be brought back into a cultural context so that conservation can address and help define the individual and collective expressions of human endeavor by establishing and ensuring connections between the past and the present.

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Frank G. Matero is associate professor of architecture and chair of the graduate program in historic preservation at the Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Architectural Conservation Laboratory and a research associate of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. In addition, he serves as course lecturer at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome, and at Restore in New York City. He is regional editor for Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites and the Journal of Architectural Conservation.

The author wishes to acknowledge the following sources in the preparation of this article: Teoria del restauro, by Cesare Brandi; "On Modification" by Vittorio Gregotti, in Inside Architecture; The Murray Pease Report and The Code of Ethics for Art Conservators; and "Historic Preservation: Philosophy, Criteria, Guidelines" by Paul Phillipot, in Preservation and Conservation, Principles and Practices.