Saturday, February 7, 2009

Are conservators keeping up with museum trends?

As co editor of the AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material) Newsletter, I recently reprinted an article from the UK Institute for Conservation’s journal by Helen Hughes in which she berated UK conservators. Here’s a taste of what she said:

"British conservators appear to be adhering to the three myths of late twentieth-century conservation; the concept of ‘minimal intervention’ – (minimal intervention to achieve what exactly?); the idea of ‘one standard of work’ which is based on a taboo of any value judgements; and the lie of ‘irreversibility’ (please name a reversible procedure). Conservators, entrapped by vocabularies and terminologies, hold it as a tenet of faith that they ‘are not restorers’, but then happily engage in aesthetic infilling and retouching and see no contradiction between their words and actions. Owners, who want to use or enjoy the objects they bring to the conservator are often viewed as ‘the enemy’ instead of allies and partners."

Such comments have been around for years. Conservators (and I write as one) are taught to concentrate on the single object or groups of objects - the detail, if you like, rather than the bigger picture. As a result we have sometimes been categorised as myopic and unable to fully appreciate broader issues in cultural heritage management; hence the basis for some of the criticisms in the UK article.

However it was heartening to see the response from conservators themselves that the criticisms did not hold for Australian conservators, and that we have moved on from these positions. The only note of discord was from a heritage architect agreeing with much of what was said, implying that though we may feel good about ourselves, we still have a way to go with our allied professionals to convince them.

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