By Jeffrey Levin

Conservation image

In October 1930 nearly two hundred museum directors, art historians, and scientists gathered in Rome for a unique international conference. Held under the auspices of the International Museums Office of the League of Nations, the conference had as its stated purpose "the study of scientific methods for the examination and preservation of works of art." At the end of five days, conference participants confirmed "the utility of laboratory research as an aid to the study of the history of art and museography..." Science in the service of art was recognized and modern conservation was born.

Six decades later, scientific issues remain central to the conservation profession. But conservation is now faced with new circumstances presenting challenges well beyond the scientific. Today, as resource allocation, politics, and public awareness help shape the agenda for conservation, a review of contemporary conditions seems needed to help secure the future of the world's cultural heritage. This article reviews some of these conditions in an attempt to characterize the current climate, to articulate some of the most difficult challenges facing the field, and to stimulate reflection on the future of conservation.

The present world is vastly different from the one of sixty years ago. This is the age of the global village in which the flow of information and increasing tourism worldwide create a greater general awareness of our cultural heritage This, too, is an age of renewed national and ethnic pride-pride often embodied in a society's cultural property. It is also a time of proliferation in the collecting of objects, an activity which further strains our ability to provide appropriate care for objects.

Conservation faces growing needs and diminishing resources. In the future, economic constraints will deny conservators the luxury of believing that every object or monument can be afforded the same high level of attention. Already the concept of triage, the notion of setting priorities, is openly discussed among museum personnel and archaeological site managers.

The scientific work of conservation is not conducted in a political vacuum. Decisions regarding the allocation of resources and the conservation of cultural properties frequently involve political considerations. Increased political support for conservation will be contingent on greater public belief in its necessity. The conservation profession, therefore, must become effective and competitive in advocating its needs, otherwise it may never achieve the political standing and public support required to meet the substantial challenges that lie ahead.

The Purpose of Conservation

As conservation enters a new era, lead by a new generation of conservators, circumstances may force a reappraisal of some traditional assumptions underlying the profession. None would argue that conservation is an end in itself. It is a means to an end. Conservation has as one of its purposes the preservation of cultural property for study and research by scholars scholars whose work enlarges our understanding of humanity's development. Certainly, objects preserved collectively can help convey the essence of a culture. But has conservation as a whole, in its dedication to the preservation of selected objects and sites, lost sight of its ultimate purpose, the preservation of cultural heritage?

Conservation also has the function of preserving the world's material culture for future generations. In practice that has often meant sheltering cultural property from public contact. But if conservation is to have the requisite support of today's public, can present access realistically, and fairly, be denied? And if present access is allowed, how much will be left for future generations?

The definitions of what should be conserved, as well as how those definitions are formulated, are the subject of contemporary scrutiny and debate. We tend to select "significant" objects for conservation. But the criticism is now sometimes leveled that "significance" is determined on the basis of cultural values. Why, for example, have European paintings received greater conservation attention than African ethnographic objects? Some contend that the notion of what constitutes "significant" is all too often predicated on Western values and ideas. Who should choose what's valuable and on what grounds? Should financial value dictate what will be conserved? And have the materials themselves influenced decisions? Do we, for instance, select objects to conserve which are inherently more stable and therefore easier to conserve?

The range of objects now considered deserving of conservation has grown beyond the more strictly defined categories of the past. Preserving natural history collections presents the conservator with a new set of scientific problems. The same can be said of geological collections. In an entirely different category are a broad range of commercial products which, over time, have acquired historical importance. These items, most never intended for long life, are now the subject of conservation. And the whole concept of preserving individual objects seems less fundamental when one considers certain Eastern approaches to conservation. In nations such as Japan, it is the creators, the craftsmen, who are identified as national treasures; the emphasis is on keeping the craft alive, as opposed to simply maintaining objects.

The scope of conservation is clearly widening. Yet, for the foreseeable future, conservation will continue to function primarily in two venues: museums, libraries, and other collecting institutions; and outdoor locations such as historical monuments, archaeological sites, and historic architecture.

Managing Collections

Until now, the vast majority of conservation work has been done in the context of museum and library collections. Although preservation constitutes a major function of museums, many conservators continue to be excluded from institutional policy-making. The many museums that cannot afford conservation departments rely on private contractors or central national offices, which tend to be treatment-oriented. In the U.S., where a growing number of museums have hired conservators during the last decade, many museums have yet to fully integrate conservation into their administrative systems and procedures.

The task of museum conservators in collections care is complicated by the reluctance of some institutions to spend sufficient funds on storage facilities and upgraded environmental controls. Because maintenance, unlike gallery space, is not visible to the public, it is less likely to be paid for by private donors. Yet appropriately designed and adequate storage facilities are crucial in preserving collections.

One of the major issues confronting museum conservators is that of individual treatments. Given limited resources and the increasing number of objects (as well as the proliferation of museums themselves), caring for museum collections primarily through individual treatments no longer appears realistic. There is a growing consensus that museum conservators should shift much of their effort from individual treatments to preventive care and long-term conservation. The best argument for this approach is the long-term savings preventive care can offer.

A comprehensive national and international approach to preventive care of collections involves education, research, and outreach. Incorporating conservation studies into the formal education of art historians and offering training in preventive conservation technologies to conservators are essential. Needed, too, is a greater understanding of the internal environments of museums and their impact on materials, and further study of ways to control museum environments. Finally, conservators will need to step beyond their laboratory walls and reach out to the broader museum community, particularly museum directors and trustees, to make the case for preventive care.

Sites and Monuments

Often located in conditions that are difficult to control, sites and monuments are highly susceptible to environmental and human damage. Many significant sites and monuments are located in developing nations which often lack the expertise and financial ability to preserve their historical riches. These nations frequently are overburdened with issues of health, education, poverty, economic development, and overpopulation, and cannot devote much energy to the conservation of their cultural resources. Remaining sensitive to human needs while attempting to assist developing countries in protecting their cultural property requires a sense of balance and sophistication on the part of international organizations.

Such sensitivity is not always displayed in the course of archaeological work. Excavation and research often reflect the objectives of foreign archaeological missions, not those of the host country. Indeed, many developing nations have not formally established their own priorities for archaeological work within their borders, but are nonetheless eager for external assistance.

As with art historians, training in conservation is rarely part of an archaeologist's formal education. Consequently, objects and sites sometimes are not treated in accordance with conservation principles, resulting in irreparable damage. This is a particular problem with regard to the maintenance of sites after an archaeological team has completed work. Without the utilization of conservation methods, a site's historical value can be quickly destroyed.

A concern for both developing and developed nations is increasing tourism. Part of conservation 's function has been preserving cultural property in order that it can be enjoyed by many. Yet public access to sites sometimes has resulted in significant harm. Should the public simply be excluded from historic places—or should we accept damage done by toursits as the price that must be paid for letting people experience their cultural heritage? The inherent paradox of tourism is that historical information is destroyed as access to that information increases. How do we determine what is an appropriate level of usage? What level of destruction is acceptable? Is the answer sacrificing some lesser sites to the demands of tourism?

Conservation of historic structures in urban environments presents additional complexities. Historic city centers are inhabited places with the requirements of contemporary life. The challenge is finding a way to preserve the historic integrity of cities without putting the people who live there into an urban time capsule. This dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that there are too few architectural conservators, and too little interaction between architectural and conservation groups.

While none of the problems related to the management of sites both in archaeological and urban settings lend themselves to simple solutions, the necessity for certain measures is apparent. No site can long be preserved without the support of the surrounding community. Creating a local constituency for site conservation and preservation means making that community part of the site management process. Training is key, both for those professionals whose skills require upgrading and for the local population.

Simultaneous with the training of technical personnel and site managers, conservation organizations need to educate government officials, including tourism ministries, regarding the benefits and dangers of site development. A nation's historical wealth can foster national pride and provide economic rewards as employment-generating attractions. But care is essential. An historic site is a heritage to be preserved, rather than a commodity to be exploited. Decision-makers ought to be encouraged to develop their own priorities for archaeological projects. At the same time, foreign agencies should recognize the legitimacy of competing national priorities.

Crucial for successful site management is more stringent site maintenance regulation. Helpful, too, would be more study on adapting new materials and non-invasive techniques for the protection of sites. Finally, when cultural property is situated in a natural context, more coordination should exist between nature conservation and site conservation. By linking cultural and environmental concerns, protective zones can be created that preserve both. As sites such as jungle-surrounded Tikal in Guatemala and Machu Picchu in Peru persuasively demonstrate, a preserved natural environment juxtaposed with human creations provides the visitor with an experience both dramatic and profound.

Site management would be aided by certain global reforms. First is providing archaeology students with a basic education in conservation. A more difficult step would be convincing major funders of excavations of the need for conservation as part of the archaeological work. Even more effective would be worldwide legislation prohibiting excavation without conservation. Such legislation would complement existing laws that prohibit looting and illegal trading of cultural property.

The Future of Conservation

The conservation field is entering a period of maturation in which its importance is recognized, though not yet fully appreciated or integrated into policy-making. Globally, conservation remains a piecemeal process. In our attempt to preserve all, we may be neglecting much that is most worthy of conservation. This approach needs to be replaced by educated decision-making and the development of institutional mechanisms that address fundamental questions and set priorities, nationally and globally.

As the scientific research work of conservation continues, the profession's future achievements hinge upon advancement in some nontechnical areas.

Ultimately, the future of conservation will be shaped by the nature and degree of outside interest in conservation efforts. The scientific work of conservation needs a political environment in which it can be applied. If progress in conservation's scientific realm is to have impact, it must be matched by increased public enthusiasm and political support.