Anniversaries are cause for celebration, but they also provoke reflection on all that has come before and all that might lie ahead. As the Getty Conservation Institute turns thirty, it is fitting to reflect on our own history and accomplishments but also on the ways that the conservation field has evolved more generally in this same period.

The political, social, economic, and technological developments that have characterized the latter part of the twentieth and early years of the twenty-first centuries have created an increasingly complex context for the understanding and conservation of cultural heritage and have provoked evolution in both thinking and practice.

Today, conservation is generally understood to mean all the processes of looking after an object or a place so as to retain its cultural significance.1 It is not simply about technical solutions or individual objects but about an integrated approach that includes planning and management and a consideration for the larger historic environment, be that a place or a museum collection.

All of this demands a long-term view and sensitivity to economic imperatives but also an understanding of what is significant and to whom, and how that significance is vulnerable to loss. This does involve attention to the retention and repair of physical fabric, but not divorced from the cultural, social, and economic forces that both created it and continue to affect the way it is used, valued, and cared for. Public participation and dialogue are essential components of the process, as are various kinds of research and an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving. Understood this way, conservation is not so much about preserving vestiges of the past as it is about the dynamic management of change and the continuity of transformation that all objects and places undergo through time.

In many ways, the work of the GCI in the past thirty years has evolved to reflect this increasingly holistic view of conservation and an integrated approach to practice. Before turning to a more detailed consideration of this evolution, it is worth reflecting on the place of the GCI in the context of other conservation organizations.

The GCI in Context

In many ways, the Getty Conservation Institute is unique among institutions dedicated to the conservation of the world’s cultural heritage. Though there are a variety of organizations today that, to varying degrees, conduct conservation-related activities and share similar goals, their specific structures, aims, mandates, and approaches differ widely from each other and from those of the GCI. Unlike intergovernmental organizations, the GCI has no member states to set its agenda. Unlike national organizations, it has no sites or collections to maintain, no geographic boundaries, and no political mandate. The GCI is not a membership organization, so it has no constituency other than the profession. Though the J. Paul Getty Trust does have a grant-giving program in the Getty Foundation, the GCI does not provide funding for projects or engage in advocacy. And while education is a central part of the Getty’s mission, the Institute does not confer degrees or provide entry-level training for conservators.

In brief, the GCI is best described as a private, international research institution focused on the creation and delivery of knowledge that will benefit the professionals and organizations responsible for the conservation of the world’s cultural heritage. As one of the four operating programs of the Getty Trust, it is also part of the Getty’s larger philanthropic enterprise dedicated to advancing the understanding, conservation, and enjoyment of the visual arts.

Since its early days, the GCI has interpreted visual arts in the broadest possible sense to include paintings, photographs, objects and collections, buildings, archaeological sites, and historic urban landscapes. Thus, our work deals with an extraordinary diversity of artifacts and issues, essentially with both movable and immovable cultural heritage.

The GCI has a multidisciplinary staff of about eighty professionals including scientists, archaeologists, architects, conservators, planners, and specialists in subjects such as documentation and education. However, most of the Institute’s work is carried out in partnership with other organizations, extending its reach in terms of expertise, resources, and geography.

Looking Back

Since its inception, the GCI has devoted itself to particular issues and areas of work that were identified as underserved or of particular importance to the conservation field. These include preventive conservation and managing museum environments; the conservation and management of archaeological sites; earthen building materials and technologies; photograph conservation; strategies for seismic mitigation and reinforcement of historic buildings; and the conservation of decorated surfaces, such as wall paintings, mosaics, and rock art. The trajectory of the Institute’s work in some of these areas is traced in this edition of Conservation Perspectives. At times in its history, the GCI was undoubtedly responding to contemporary trends in thinking and practice; at other times, the Institute has taken a more proactive role in leading change.

So what are some of the important characteristics of GCI work that reflect the evolving nature of the conservation field over the last three decades?

Surely the most overriding change has been the adoption of a more holistic approach that looks not just at a particular object or building but at the larger environmental and cultural context. In a sense, the GCI’s work in Egypt, beginning with the conservation of the wall paintings of the Tomb of Nefertari in the late 1980s and continuing more recently with the development of a conservation and management plan for the Valley of the Queens, is a microcosm of the evolution in thinking that has taken place in the conservation field. Beginning with a consideration of the individual object and a focus on its physical conservation and presentation, the GCI later worked with Egyptian colleagues to consider larger contextual issues of planning and management, an understanding of the natural, social, and political environment, and the capacity and conditions required to ensure the long-term protection of the site by those entrusted with its stewardship.

The last thirty years have also seen a greater emphasis on preventive conservation—essentially measures to manage and mitigate the risks to objects and sites—as opposed to a previous focus on remedial intervention. Some of this reflects the practical reality that repeated treatments are both costly and potentially ineffective if not carried out within a broad framework that includes environmental control and strategies for monitoring and maintenance. This trend is evident both in museums, where the concept of acceptable risk is being reevaluated in light of energy conservation concerns, and on sites, where the sheer magnitude of heritage to be preserved precludes conservation and presentation of every detail. For example, preventive measures like sheltering and reburial are increasingly important to the conservation of archaeological heritage, as are visitor management strategies that both protect the site and improve the visitor experience.

Related trends are seen in conservation science. At the GCI and in the field more generally, science has evolved from a focus on treatment and the development of new treatment materials to a more profound understanding of decay mechanisms, improvement of analytical technologies to better identify materials and understand their deterioration, and design of preventive conservation strategies like oxygen-free display cases and safer museum lighting sources. Analytical instruments have become more portable, allowing them to be brought to the object or site rather than the other way around, and there are a growing number of sophisticated noninvasive techniques that permit detailed analysis with little or no sample material. Scientists are integral members of project teams (rather than simply the recipients of samples for analysis) and, increasingly, have specialist knowledge in both a scientific discipline (like chemistry, physics, or biology) and conservation.

Education, too, has seen significant developments at the GCI and elsewhere in the field. After an early focus on short training courses, our approach now is to think longer-term. Most current GCI training initiatives involve some type of course followed by supervised periods of mentoring during which the trainees gain confidence with new ideas and approaches and build relationships with each other and the larger professional community. Similarly, from a focus on more technical aspects of repair and treatment, GCI training initiatives now incorporate larger issues of planning and management and present a broader framework for decision making. This approach to education is more labor intensive, but it ultimately builds capacity that is sustainable in the long term, especially in parts of the world where access to specialized conservation education remains limited. In recent years, the GCI has also placed increasing emphasis on the development of didactic materials that can be used by others and has begun to experiment with new modes of delivering training, such as distance learning.

Finally, the Institute’s work has also reflected recent developments in the way that information is disseminated and made available to a variety of audiences. Our commitment to traditional print publications remains strong, but in recent years we have increasingly utilized electronic media to make information more broadly accessible. This effort includes richer content on the GCI website, the continuing digitization of out-of-print publications to make them available free of charge as PDFs, and a much greater presence in social media, including a GCI YouTube channel with a growing number of videos. The Getty’s founders envisioned an important role for the GCI in the dissemination of information to the field. This remains central to the GCI’s mission, but with an expansion in volume and modes of delivery that could not have been foreseen thirty years ago.

Looking Forward

If anything, the context for our work has become even more challenging. The conservation field has expanded in scope and in the variety of professionals engaged in it. Government resources for cultural heritage continue to decline, and there is serious competition for private sources of funding. Conflict and political instability threaten heritage in many parts of the world, as do rapid population growth and urbanization. Climate change has led to heightened risk from natural disasters and the need to develop more energy-efficient approaches to conservation and management. The rapid development of digital technologies has created both new opportunities and new challenges. And, of course, the heritage of the recent past is coming of age and is at increased risk.

Clearly, no single organization can deal with all of the issues faced by the conservation field. In the years ahead, the GCI will continue to develop areas of work in which it has a long history while attempting to address emerging needs. For example, in recent years we have expanded our role in the conservation of modern and contemporary art and architecture, and we envision that this will be an important area of work going forward. We also aim to better integrate our work in the realm of archaeological heritage to address more effectively tourism and visitor management issues, and we have begun to invest more strategically in the area of historic cities.

Preventive conservation will remain an important component of GCI work and will be broadened to develop more sustainable climate control strategies for museums and to carry out targeted research to better assess risk to collections. The Institute will continue to invest in digital technologies for conservation, including improvements to the Arches system for heritage inventory and the creation of a framework for the better integration of scientific data generated in the study of particular objects and sites. And, of course, publication and the dissemination of information will remain central to the GCI’s mission.

Yet there are broader challenges that must be addressed by the conservation community at large if the field is to retain its relevance and impact in the years ahead.


The number of academic programs offering specialized training in conservation has increased substantially in the last thirty years. However, these tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the world, with other regions having little or no access to conservation education. And while there is general agreement on the knowledge and skills needed to create entry-level conservators, there is much less agreement on what constitutes a conservation architect, conservation scientist, or site manager. Moreover, as the field has become broader and more complex, it has become increasingly important not just to provide conservators with a sound theoretical basis for their practice and strong scientific and technical skills, but also to provide the ability to think critically, to communicate with a variety of audiences, to deal with conflict and arrive at negotiated solutions, and to work effectively as members of interdisciplinary teams. To improve the quality of conservation education generally and to ensure that conservation professionals are equipped to face current challenges, the academic and professional communities may have to rethink both what is taught and how conservation education is delivered. It will also be necessary to better define various professional profiles and the training required to achieve recognized competence.

Conservation Science

Conservation science is now recognized as a discrete area of enquiry. The last thirty years have seen an increase in the number of institutions involved in heritage science and a growing body of scientific literature. However, as with education, recent studies of conservation science indicate that the vast majority of activity occurs in particular parts of the world (largely North America and Europe, with growing constituencies in Latin America and Asia).2 Also, there is no clearly defined profile or educational route for the conservation scientist. Similarly, though various national and international funding programs for cultural heritage science have appeared in recent years, available financial support for the sector is again diminishing. As has been pointed out before, conservation research will never be competitive unless it can demonstrate both a consistent level of quality and the importance of conservation-related issues to larger scientific and societal concerns.3 To do this, the profession needs to work together to develop cogent national and international research strategies that will be compelling and will justify support at the highest levels. This demands stringent evaluation of work against defined indicators to prove the value and relevance of conservation science in the policy arena.

Access to Information

Despite the rapid development of digital platforms for communication, there are still many parts of the world where access to information is severely limited. As a profession, it is important that we work harder to get information regarding the conservation of cultural heritage to those who need it most. This involves more creative use of digital media, more open access to relevant professional journals, the production of publications in both digital and print form, the translation of critical texts into a variety of languages, and the strengthening of professional networks. There are undoubtedly economic challenges in the publishing industry that need to be addressed to facilitate easier access to information, but these are not unique to the conservation sector, and sustainable models have begun to emerge.

Perception and Visibility of the Field

The conservation profession has not been very effective at making a case on the political level for its importance and legitimacy. Though heritage conservation is undoubtedly one of the most important intellectual movements of the last century and profoundly contributes to the public realm, it is threatened by a lack of policy attention and a low public profile.4 If the field is to thrive, it must better articulate its value to society at large and find more effective ways of communicating with a variety of audiences.

In the words of David Lowenthal, “Posterity is conservation’s prime concern. Being answerable to it is our main duty.”5 As the GCI enters the next phase in its history, we remain convinced that the conservation of cultural heritage contributes not just to our understanding of the past but also to the quality and diversity of the world that will be passed on to future generations. In preserving objects of beauty and memory that represent our shared humanity, we strive to promote a more civil society. It is in this spirit that the GCI looks to the future.

Jeanne Marie Teutonico is associate director for programs at the Getty Conservation Institute.

1. The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance (Burwood, Australia: Australia ICOMOS Incorporated, 2013).
2. Alison Heritage, Cecilia Anuzet, Erika Andersson, and Catherine Antomarchi, “The ICCROM Forum on Conservation Science 2013: A Collaborative Partnership for Strategic Thinking,” in ICOM-CC Seventeenth Triennial Conference Preprints, Melbourne, 15–19 September 2014, edited by J. Bridgland (Paris: International Council of Museums, 2014).
3. For example, see Jeanne Marie Teutonico and John Fidler, “Time for Change: An Overview of Building-Materials Research for Conservation of Historic Structures,” APT Bulletin 29, nos. 3–4 (1998): 45–49.
4. Samuel Jones, “It’s a Material World,” Studies in Conservation 55, no. 4 (2010): 242–49.
5. David Lowenthal, “Omens from the Mediterranean: Conservation Nostrums in Mare Nostrum,” Studies in Conservation 55, no. 4 (2010): 231–41.