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VOL I Ethnographic collections 185

The brave new world of conservation

Renata Peters
Institute of Archaeology
University College London
3134 Gordon Square
London WC1H OPY
E-mail: m.peters@ucl.ac.uk
Website: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology/staff/profiles/peters.htm
decision making, consultations, conflicting interests, impact of conservation,
The dynamics of control over cultural material held by museums and related
institutions in the western world have undergone significant changes in the last
20 years. This has mainly been triggered by economic, social and political
changes that started after the Second World War in the so-called developed
countries, a period historian Eric Hobsbawm (1995) calls Golden Age
(19451990). This era of economic growth and prosperity culminated, at the
end of the 1960s, with wide spread youth movements that had a
countercultural, subversive character and strongly advocated for the civil
rights of groups that historically had been marginalized and neglected such
as women, homosexuals, religious and ethnic minorities and indigenous
It took several years before the influence of these movements started to
impact on the way museums were run. The first World Archaeology
Congress (WAC) in 1986 was one of the first international attempts to discuss
issues related to archaeological ethics and the treatment of human remains
(Layton 1989).This led, for example, to the formulation of The Vermillion
Accord on Human Remains, a code drafted in the subsequent WAC Inter-
Congress in 1989, and was followed by the National Museum of the
American Indian Act (NMAIA) in 1989 and the Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. Even though these laws
and codes dealt more specifically with issues relating to human remains and
associated material, they have undoubtedly affected the way museum
professionals thought and perceived their institutions. This provoked significant
changes, many of which related to the inclusion of non-professional groups in
decision-making processes traditionally restricted to museum professionals.
Conservators, as part of these institutions, also responded to these trends.
As a result, the discipline of conservation is now considered a social as well as
a technical and scientific process. This means that conservators now have to
consider and respond to wider social, political and economic factors than
those directly linked to their institutions and laboratories; the views of
individuals, source communities, descendants and other non-professionals are
increasingly gaining importance in the decision-making processes preceding
conservation. Needless to say that the possible outcomes from this kind of
collaborations are numerous and unpredictable, depending on the character
of the input, the number of groups taken into account and the political
context of the holding institution. Consequently, there are no more ready or
easy models to be followed, and every conservation action may involve
complex negotiations where condition of the material fabric of objects is only
one of many factors in play. Conservators are expected to be aware of and
understand the different interests involved in this process of negotiation, so as
to be able to design and implement conservation strategies that will somehow
respond to all (or most) of these interests.
The dynamics of control over cultural
material held by museums and related
institutions in the western world have
undergone significant changes in the last
20 years. This relates mainly to the
inclusion of non-professional groups in
decision-making processes traditionally
restricted to museum professionals. The
discipline of conservation is now
considered a social as well as a technical
and scientific process; every conservation
action may involve complex negotiations
where condition of the material fabric of
objects is only one of many factors in
play. This socially, politically and
economically aware approach is already
recognized as placing conservators in
complex positions. This paper will
address reasons for and implications of
these circumstances by looking at some
aspects of how the conservation
discipline is perceived, understood and
practiced in the contemporary western
La dynamique du contrle sur le matriel
culturel dtenu par les muses et les
institutions apparentes dans le monde
occidental a subi des changements
significatifs au cours des vingt dernires
annes. Ceci est principalement d
lintgration de groupes non-
professionnels dans le processus de prise
de dcision, rserv jusque l aux
professionnels des muses. La discipline
de la conservation-restauration est
maintenant considre comme un
processus tant scientifique et technique
que social; toute action de conservation-
restauration peut impliquer des
ngociations compliques o ltat de la
structure de la matire des objets nest
quun des nombreux facteurs en jeu.
Cette approche politiquement,
socialement et conomiquement
consciente est reconnue pour placer les
conservateurs-restaurateurs dans des
situations compliques. Cet article se
penche sur les raisons de ces circonstances
et sur leurs consquences en examinant
comment la discipline de la conservation-
restauration est perue, comprise et
pratique dans le monde occidental
En los ltimos 20 aos, la dinmica de
control sobre el material cultural llevada a
cabo por los museos e instituciones
afines en el mundo occidental ha sufrido
cambios significativos. Esto se debe
principalmente a la inclusin de grupos
no profesionales en los procesos de toma
de decisiones, restringidos
tradicionalmente a los profesionales de
los museos. La disciplina de la
conservacin se considera actualmente
tanto un proceso social como tcnico y
cientfico; cada accin de conservacin
puede implicar negociaciones complejas,
donde las condiciones de la estructura
fsica y material de los objetos es slo
uno de los muchos factores en juego.
Este enfoque de conciencia social, poltica
y econmica sita a los conservadores-
restauradores en posiciones complejas.
Este artculo tratar las razones e
implicaciones de estas circunstancias,
observando cmo la disciplina de la
conservacin se percibe, se entiende y se
practica en el mundo occidental
This socially, politically and economically aware approach, where many
interests are taken into account and where nothing should be taken for
granted, is already recognised as placing conservators in positions that may at
times question the core of their profession. I have become accustomed when
listening to conservation colleagues in the last couple of years, to hearing
about certain feelings of discomfort experienced from time to time, particularly
in situations where conflicting interests arise.
This paper will address reasons for, and implications of, these circumstances,
by looking at some aspects of how the conservation discipline is perceived,
understood and practiced in the contemporary western world.
The search for definitions
Defining conservation and its scope of activities and responsibilities is far
from being a job done. In a Forbes Lecture at the IIC (International Institute
for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works) Munich Congress in
September 2006, Gal de Guichen discussed the confusion caused by the lack
of rigor in the definition of activities related to the profession, and emphasized
the need for more consistency. You will all agree with me that the
establishment of a common definition of those actions [that define the
conservation process] accepted by the profession is today necessary, possible
and urgent (Guichen 2007, 71).
However, as conservation has only been recognized as a profession relatively
recently, it is natural that conservators still seek to define the boundaries of the
profession. In Contemporary Theory of Conservation (Salvador Muoz
Vias 2005) says that conservation began to be acknowledged as a profession
sometime between the 19th and 20th century when it became clear that the
views, approaches and skills required to treat a painting were different from
those required to treat the walls of a common peasant house (Vias 2005, 02).
Part of this search and self-examination relates to establishing conservations
areas of action, philosophy, responsibilities and interests. In other words, it is
important to define what should be expected from the professional, what
they can do and how they can do it. Other reasons for attempting to define
the profession more clearly include the need for conservators to be
recognized by other related professionals and by the general public, as well as
the need to delineate the limits of expertise so that the profession is not
misused or misrepresented. Finally, because conservation is a profession that
will, even if indirectly, affect interests of millions of people, it seems obvious
that it should be better defined and understood (Sease 1998, Clavir 2002,
Brandi 2005, Muoz-Vias 2005).
Formal attempts to guide conservation intervention started to appear more
consistently towards the middle of the 20th century. Since then, conservation
has developed internationally and organizationally and a considerable number
of institutions, guidelines and codes of ethics are now available. While the
definitions and guidelines set up for conservation professionals may sometimes
be conflicting or unattainable it is undeniable that they do shed light on
approaches to the conservation process. However, a fundamental question
Who does conservation represent, people or objects?
I recently witnessed a discussion between a conservator and an archaeologist
where the archaeologist ended up reminding the conservator that
conservators priority should be to defend the preservation of the material
fabric of objects. This interesting inversion of roles happened after the
conservator explained that sometimes, because of requests made by some
groups involved in decision-making processes, the preservation of the material
fabric of a given object may not be the principal aim in the conservation
agenda. While the inversion above may sound a little radical, it is true that this
inclusive approach of conservation has generated confusion and not only to
VOL I Ethnographic collections 187
non-conservators. Conservators themselves have very often been put in
positions that make them question who they stand for: people or objects?
The conservation strategy for the khipu of San Cristbal de Rapaz (Peters
et al 2008) illustrates some of the problems discussed here, as it was devised
in a context defined by competing requirements and approaches (Figure 1).
Khipu are rare artefacts that were used to record information in the Inca
Empire. Those in Rapaz, a highland Andean village in Peru, are considered
unique because they are still used in civil and religious rituals and housed in
their original location, a building called Kaha Wayi. They are carefully looked
after by local authorities (the Comuneros) who supervised the conservation
work and participated in all decision-making processes that preceded
conservation. Their needs and requirements had some competing aspects; at
the same time as the Comuneros were committed to protecting the traditional
ritual use of their khipu, they were also interested in developing a public
identity at regional and national levels that would attract tourists. This
necessitated a conservation strategy that would protect the material fabric of
the khipu and their architectural complex, and provide appropriate access to
tourists whilst not disturbing the sites function in the community as an
element of self-knowledge and cultural continuity.
Perhaps we all agree that in most cases, an object is significant because of
the way people perceive it. This perception will depend on how, when and
why an object was manufactured, used, discarded (or not), and on what an
object can reveal about these processes, and people related to them (Kopytoff
1986, Shanks 1998). An object may not only carry information about people
and their time but it may also connect us to them. It may be a link between
people in the present and people in the past, whenever that past was. The
khipu not only connect the Comuneros to their ancestors, but also to the deified
mountains. Moreover, because our timeslot is the present, and because the
past is part of the present and the present is part of the future, all these
different instances will be interconnected through the existence of this object.
The complexity of this interconnection will depend on the links between the
object and different groups of people (manufacturers, museum visitors,
owners, source communities, users etc). Ultimately, these will define the different
connotations and interests involved, which may be emotional, historical,
political, religious, scientific etc. For instance, by trying to enhance the number
of visitors to the site in Rapaz, the Comuneros are adding another group of people
to the site itself, that may (almost certainly will) introduce further complexity.
This web of interconnectivity explains why it is difficult, if not impossible,
to take a stand and say that conservation should represent objects rather than
people, or vice-versa (Clavir 2002, 6998). If one was to choose to defend
the alternative people, the first logical question to follow would be: which
specific group of people (connected to a given object) conservators are going
to represent if this object has many different links to many different people
who have different interests and expectations. The choices made by the
conservator may affect how these aspects will be presented; by preserving,
revealing, enhancing or recovering a given aspect of an object, conservators
are in reality preserving aspects of what people do and did. However, other
aspects of significance may be compromised in the process.
The fact is that there are no ready solutions to be followed, no recipes, no
one-size-fits-all when it comes to conservation in the contemporary world.
Simply because objects, their uses, their users, their manufacturers, their
descendants, and even their conservators, are all part of dynamic and ever
changing symbiotic relationships characteristic of the present. Conservators
do not represent either objects or people. Rather, conservators should aim to
work with the outcome of the connections between people and objects. Only
this interaction will enable informed and relevant conservation responses.
Empowerment, consultations and public outreach
Conservation impinges upon many aspects of peoples lives, and it can
therefore affect their interests in many ways. By choosing to conserve a given
Figure 1. The khipu of San Cristbal de
Rapaz, before conservation
aspect of an objects significance, a conservator may be, willing or unwillingly,
enhancing qualities in the object that may facilitate many processes. These
include, but are not limited to, the recovery or continuation of cultural
traditions that may affect political, social, religious, ethnic or geographic
identities and might be used for political, social and economical purposes that
may or not result in beneficial changes. The more aware conservators are of
these processes, the more they will be able to make choices that will be
informed, responsible and relevant. Only by having an in-depth knowledge of
the interests involved in the conservation process and of the impact this
process may impart, conservators will be able to assess and perhaps anticipate
the implications of their actions.
Consultation with interested groups is obviously one of the best ways to
assess what is at stake. Consultations with source communities of ethnographic
cultural material, for instance, have been conducted extensively in the last few
years and they seem to be the currently prescribed remedy for almost every
problem or challenge (Bernstein 1992, Odegaard 1996, Clavir 2002, Kaminitz
et al 2005). However, setting up a consultation process and assessing its results
is as complex as any of the issues discussed so far (Johnson et al 2005). For
instance, who should you include in a consultation? When there are conflicting
views (from within the same group or not), who do you listen to? What
interests are different groups representing, and how do you assess and
mediate these interests? What weight do the voices of professionals should
have in a consultation with source communities? And finally, is the fact that
decisions were made in consultation with different interested groups enough
to justify anything? Who is responsible for an unsuccessful enterprise? While
these questions illustrate the complexity of the issue, they also shed light in the
process, and point out some of the contentious issues surrounding the subject
(Peters et al 2008).
The new display-case (made of aluminium and tempered glass) installed at
the site of the khipu of Rapaz provides an interesting example of conservation
as a tool of empowerment for groups that have been misrepresented in
museums. Before conservation the khipu were kept in a vertical position,
hanging over a stick (Figures 1 and 2). The organic and intimate experience
provided by this installation was then replaced by a clinical high-tech display-
case (exhaustively discussed during a consultation session) that contrasts with
the rustic architecture of Kaha Wayi (Figure 3). The Comuneros made this
obviously controversial choice because they viewed the new display-case as a
desirable way of distancing visitors from the khipu. For them, it was also a
statement against any possible claims of acquisition by museums in urban
centres and a way of appropriating the power and privileges of these
museums for their rural community. In addition, the new installation stands as
an invitation to museum audiences from bigger and richer cities to come and
visit rural cultural sites instead of expecting this cultural property to be brought
to their cities; the new display-case became part of an effort to counter any
possible movement towards the national centralization of cultural property.
The benefits of involving more people in decision-making processes, once
restricted to museum professionals, outnumber the problems and frustration
caused by the process. Consultations empower their participants, the decision-
making process, the activity of conservation itself and the end-result of the
whole process. This suggests that conservators should devise more aggressive
strategies of public outreach in order to attract the involvement of a wider
public in the conservation process. One good reason for such an endeavour is
that conservation has to keep up with the pace of the rapidly changing
contemporary world. Communication technologies, high speed internet, cable
television, air travel and a constant and intense exchange of information affect
the contexts in which conservation is carried out, just as they affect all our
activities. The general public should not be viewed only as visitors and users
of collections but also as informers who will highlight and flag up how the
world is evolving and how conservation can keep up with it. Only by listening
to a wider public can conservators hope to carry on being relevant to both
people and objects.
Figure 2. The old installation of the khipu
of San Cristbal de Rapaz provided a close
and organic experience to visitors
Figure 3. The khipu of San Cristbal de
Rapaz being installed in their new display-
VOL I Ethnographic collections 189
When elaborating on post-modernity as a consequence of an incomplete
project, that is, modernity, philosopher Jrgen Habermas (1995) says that
modernity was formulated in the 18th century by the philosophers of the
Enlightenment who wanted to develop objective science, universal morality
and law, and autonomous art according to their inner logic. The arts and
sciences were expected to promote not only the control of natural forces
but also understanding of the world and of the self, moral progress, the
justice of institutions and even the happiness of human beings (Habermas
1995, 09). Conservation started to be defined as a profession as a consequence
to a similar desire for vertical knowledge and expertise.
The conservation discipline does stem from this need for specialisms but it
also has aspects that may overlap with those of other specialisms. In addition,
by aiming to preserve varied (if not competing) instances of significance in the
material fabric of objects or in things associated with them, and by trying to
work with the outcome of the interconnections between people and objects,
conservators are aiming to promote things that could well be classified as
not only the control of natural forces but also understanding of the world
and of the self, moral progress, the justice of institutions and even the
happiness of human beings (Habermas 1995, 09). It is true that with the 20th
century came the need to negate the principles of modernity (Habermas 1995)
and later on a constant confirmation, negation, re-creation, reconsideration,
modification of these principles. This constant revision defines our current
slot in post-modernity, the moment where contemporary conservation is
situated. Consequently, the self-examination that is characteristic of the
conservation discipline should always be relevant.
Conservation can be used as an effective tool of empowerment, but only
through having a deep understanding of the different aspects and interests
involved in the conservation of cultural material can conservators aim to have
a chance of considering the implications of their choices. Consultations, on
the other hand, empower not only the people involved in them, but the actual
conservation process. However, their outcomes, and the way they are
conducted, have to be approached with extreme care.
The benefits of involving wider groups in decision-making processes far
outnumber the problems they bring. They enrich and legitimize the total
conservation process and allow for a better chance of being relevant for the
present, past and future. Professional isolation does not bring any significant
benefits, but embracing the rest of the too often ignored world might give us
both relevance and new insights as Miranda put in all her innocence when
realizing there were others in the world Oh wonder! How many goodly
creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world
that has such people int! (Shakespeare 1995, 91).
Thanks are due to Tim Schadla-Hall for his support.
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