What is conservation?

Thoughts on the definitions of conservation

“…the approach to conservation can never be generalised, and is very dependent on the aims of the particular museum and curator.”
(Oddy 1992: 12)

The definition of heritage conservation is an elusive one, particularly because of the varied nature of the work carried out on the thousands of types of objects chosen for conservation by the hundreds of conservators in the dozens of countries around the world. Actions taken depend on the myriad of objectives that the conservator-restorer may be looking to accomplish based not only on the object itself but also on the owner’s wishes and the societal demands on each particular object’s functionality. Thus, the definition of conservation should, for the sake of accuracy, take into account the different aims, objectives and purposes of all involved players: the object, the conservator-restorer, the archaeologist/curator/owner, and society as a whole. The difficulty in arriving at a general definition thus becomes obvious. Moreover, if, as Andrew Oddy states, “the approach to conservation can never be generalised,” (Oddy 1992: 12), how could we even attempt to arrive at a generalised definition? This essay divides the definitions of conservation into three main types: object-centred definitions, anthropocentric definitions, and mixed object-societal definitions. For brevity, this essay does not include preventive conservation, but only interventive conservation.

Object-centred definitions

Many descriptions and generalised statements about the aims of conservation focus on the importance of the objects themselves. As a main objective, deterioration must be stopped or slowed (Pye 2001:24). Objects and their significance (aesthetic, symbolic, religious, etc.) must be safeguarded into the future (Pye 2001: 25). “Conservation is the ensemble of means that, in carrying out an intervention on an object of its environment, seek to prolong its existence as long as possible” (Berducou 1996: 250). Thus, “Conservation supposes an awareness of the materiality of the objects in which we are interested, and of the twofold consequence of that materiality: their irreplaceable nature and their physical vulnerability to the test of time” (Berducou 1996: 250). These descriptions emphasize the importance of a material’s composition/lifespan and, by extension, focus on the conservator’s capacity (whether now or in the past) to understand each material and act upon it accordingly with appropriate conservation skills and techniques (Pye 2001:34). These could be considered “technical” definitions of conservation interested in the survival of material in the face of time and decay.

Anthropocentric definitions

Anthropocentric definitions, on the other hand, focus on the fact that objects are meant to be conserved because of the sole value of their existence in a human context; because of the fact that somebody, somewhere, sometime made them and thus turned a series of materials from something natural to something man-made. Here come all those descriptions that regard conservation as the guardian of cultural heritage, material history, and human ingenuity/knowledge (Pye 2001: 24; Cronyn 1990: 13; Berducou 1996: 250, 255; AIC website, ICON website, IIC website). This particular focus on the conservation profession chooses to highlight the conservator’s social responsibility (and interestingly enough, by extension, his or her necessity to be highly trained by or associated to a specific set of institutions). In this case, conservation is not so much about the objects themselves – which preserved cryogenically mean absolutely nothing to us (Caple 2000: 32) – but about the information and feelings they might hold for us regarding our historic past as human groups.

These society-focused definitions of the profession will use language such as “save our treasures for generations to come” (AIC website) and talk about conservation’s “essential contribution to the whole of society, to education, to the advancement of knowledge, to tourism and to the economy” (ICON website) in a natural attempt to justify the existence of the field. Consequently, conservation is presented as a human need, and the definition will not dwell on handling and treatment of objects as much as the symbolic importance of their maintenance. This will also extend to conversations about access - how conservation may act as a guard which either forbids or allows access of other individuals or groups to the objects themselves.

Conservation as a mixture of social and material aims

A more holistic approach to definitions of conservation includes in the general definitions both the ideas of cultural heritage and the material object itself (ICOM-CC website, Caple 2000: 33-36). Caple describes conservation as a three-pronged activity consisting of Revealing, Investigating, and Preserving (RIP) each object (Caple 2000: 34) with each individual case having its own, particular mixture of each of these activities. While the RIP triangle itself may be technically-inclined, referring to specific procedures in conservation, the overall purpose of it is to show diagrammatically the existence of a balanced approach including both the academic understanding and physical maintenance of the objects involved.

Similarly, The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping uses the following:

“Conservation is defined as the careful management of change. It's about revealing and sharing the significance of places and ensuring that their special qualities are protected, enhanced, understood and enjoyed by present and future generations.”
(Sandwith & Stainton, 2011)

This definition bridges the gap between the physicality of the object and its function in society. There is certainly no need for object-centred and anthropocentric definitions to be mutually exclusive unless one specifically desires so.

But why the divide?

The origins of conservation as the profession known today can be traced back as far as one wishes depending on what kind of focus we give it. We can talk about the very ancient techniques to conserve food by salting or drying, even include the processes of Egyptian mumification. We can skip those for being a bit tangential and start at the housekeeping manuals of the 17th and 18th centuries explaining how to clean and protect home items from the various agents of deterioration:

"... have speciall care and regard to p'serve the same from all manner of wett, mothe and other hurt or spoyle thereofe and to leave them to preserved to contynewe at the sayed several houses..."
Elizabeth, countess of Shrewsbury in her will of 1601 *(Sandwith & Stainton, 2011)

We can jump forward to personages such as John Ruskin (mid 19th c.), William Morris (late 19th) and Cesare Brandi (early 20th) who more specifically advocated for the protection of ancient objects and monuments.

Conservation has proven to be an evolving process. When Morris and Brandi wrote, they reacted to destructive "restorations" which did away with many original materials as they searched to renew the aesthetics of monuments or objects. They sowed the seeds for a profession which strove to protect the material aspect of our histories, thus setting the initial focus on the object itself.

During the 1930s and 40s, it was still considered somewhat acceptable to re-build archaeological monuments or objects based on expectations and knowledge at the time. (For example, the restoration of the Palace of Knossos, in Crete or the Inca Acllawasi in Pachacamac, Peru, or the arm of the sculpture of the Laocöon in the Vatican.) Many of these interventions could be impossible to reverse. Furthermore, as exciting, modern adhesives and fillers were invented, during the 50s and 60s, many of them were used on objects without much knowledge on how the added materials would age. Ancient metals were stripped of their corrosion by electrolytic means or acid dips in attempts to see the base metal beneath - to "discover" the "original". Some had no base metal left at all and thus were completely lost and dissolved.

When the 70s and 80s rolled around, it suddenly became noticeable that many old restorations were ageing extremely badly - some potentially even causing more damage than if the object had been left alone. Thus, the history of conservation begins with a concern for the preservation of the original materiality of the object and travels through a sudden realisation regarding the way the objects were reacting to our direct interventions. Ironically, our attempts to save had actually destroyed.

Once we became painfully aware that the objects were not just simply taking and accepting restoring interventions without becoming increasingly complicated, damaged and even losing authenticity, we began to explicitly talk about minimising interventions. We started to worry that our tinkering was, in fact, not only failing to chemically or physically stabilise, but was actively harming and taking away from the "meaning" of the object. And if we believe that objects have modern social identities, then an object-centred approach could be considered inaccurate - which period of time should that object represent? The time when it was made or the time when we are looking at it? Conservation stops being about preserving the material for the sake of an 'unbiased' history, but must take into account the current social value, function and purpose of the object in the context of what society deems important. This particular discussion could be the focus of a complete book, so I will leave it at that for now.

Final thoughts

How is it possible to have a short, straight-forward sentence which will, in a few words, describe what Caple has condensed into “three almost opposing aims” (Caple 2000:33)? (Reveal, Investigate, Preserve). In short, I'm not sure it is fully possible. Conservation must therefore be a case-by-case negotiation of possible treatments regarding the health of material objects based on societal desires or pressures, and it is the job of the professional conservator not only to worry about the materiality of an object, but to reconcile our demands with an object’s capacity to fulfil them.

If you'd like to continue this conversation, follow me on Twitter where I'll be happy to talk about it some more.


AIC. (2012). Available: http://www.conservation-us.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.viewPage&pageId=471. Last accessed 19th Oct 2012.

Berducou, Marie. (1996). Introduction to Archaeological Conservation. In: Price, N.S.; Talley Jr., M.K.; Melucco Vaccaro, A. Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. Washington: The Getty Conservation Institute. 248-259

Caple, C (2000). Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method and Decision Making. Oxon: Routledge.

Cronyn, J.M. (1990). The Elements of Archaeological Conservation. London: Routledge.

ICOM-CC. (2012). Terminology to characterize the conservation of tangible cultural heritage. Available: http://www.icom-cc.org/242/about-icom-cc/what-is-conservation/. Last accessed 19th Oct 2012

ICON. (2012). Available: http://www.icon.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1&Itemid=2. Last accessed 19th Oct 2012.

IIC. (2012). Available: http://www.iiconservation.org/about. Last accessed 19th Oct 2012.

Oddy, A (1992). The Art of the Conservator. London: British Museum Press.

Pye, E. (2001). Conservation examined. In: Caring for the past: Issues in conservation for archaeology and museums. London: James & James (Science Publishers) Ltd.

Sandwith, H. and Stainton, S. (2011). The National Trust manual of housekeeping. 4th ed. London: National Trust, p.35.

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