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Subject: AIC Code of Ethics revision

AIC Code of Ethics revision

From: Elizabeth C. Welsh <aaphw>
Date: Monday, June 21, 1993
Comments on AIC document dated May 21, 1993, titled:
"Discussion Document: Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice"
Elizabeth C. Welsh
June 19, 1993

>  The preservation of cultural property is the primary goal of
>  the conservation profession. Cultural property, material of
>  significance that may be artistic, historic, scientific,
>  religious, or social, constitutes an invaluable and
>  irreplaceable legacy that must be preserved for future
>  generations.

Following the first sentence, I would like to see "preservation of
cultural property" defined, from a conservation standpoint.

It is worth noting that some people believe that allowing an object to
biodegrade without intervention constitutes preserving it.  Also, some
people believe that the essence of cultural property is the "work" it
does--by being in use--and that maintaining it in an inactive state, for
the purpose of physical stabilization, is not preservation of it.  Does
the conservation profession accept these (among other) views?  Are we
willing to define here what "preservation" includes, or are we saying
with this vagueness that we are open to all sincerely-held concepts of
cultural property preservation?

I would like to see the second sentence ("Cultural property...")
deleted.  It does not logically follow the first sentence.  It sounds
like a statement made at the outset of an argument to justify the
existence of conservation--but here it embodies a rather intense
conclusion without any supporting arguments.

For instance, do we really believe that everything designated as
cultural property is "invaluable and irreplaceable" and "must" be
preserved?  In my view, this is unrealistic, and not even very
desirable, in a world of limited resources.

Insisting on this premise also forces us toward accepting what I
consider one of the most problematic points in this code, item V. The
item V. ethic prohibits conservators from allowing the value of a
cultural property to affect conservation decisions, although values of
many kinds--historic, aesthetic, cultural, monetary, etc.--certainly
came into play in the decision to designate something a cultural
property in the first place.

>  In striving to achieve this goal, conservation professionals
>  assume certain obligations to the cultural property, to its
>  owners and custodians, to the conservation profession, and to
>  society as a whole.

"Conservation professional" appears here (and is used repeatedly
afterward) without definition. Defining key terms in these documents is
essential, especially because the description of what a "conservation
professional" "shall" do becomes increasingly specific as the document
goes on. In the absence of a direct definition, I would infer from this
document that a conservation professional is anyone who agrees with, and
believes they are following, this code/guide.

>  This document, the Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice
>  of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and
>  Artistic Works (AIC), sets forth the principles that guide
>  conservation professionals and others who are involved in the
>  care of cultural property.

Who are the "others"?  This is the only place that "others" are added to
"conservation professionals"-- what is the intention? Does "others" here
mean allied professionals like museum and library staff who probably
share the conservation profession's basic outlook?  Or is this document
also seeking to guide/ evaluate the behavior and ethics of people in
positions to care for cultural property whose values differ from those
at the foundation of this document?

>  I.  Conservation professionals shall strive to attain the
>  highest possible standards in all aspects of conservation,
>  including, but not limited to, preventive conservation,
>  examination, documentation, treatment, research, and
>  education.

What does "attain the highest possible standards" mean here, and what is
the authoritative reference for what those standards are?

Does it mean that the work done in all those categories should always be
done to the highest possible standards? Or does it mean that the
conservator should know what the highest possible standards are, and
attain them when conditions are right? Both of these interpretations are

Always doing conservation to the highest possible standards is
unrealistic.  For example, some situations call for the highest
standards of examination and research, some don't.  Some situations call
for the most extensively thorough documentation, some don't.

If this means, instead, "attain the highest possible standards when
conditions are right," it seems to be in conflict with other parts of
this document that prohibit differentiating between the level of care to
be accorded to cultural property items.

So, what really is the intent of this ethic?

>  II.  All actions of the conservation professional must be
>  governed by an informed respect for the aesthetic, conceptual,
>  and physical character of cultural property and for the people
>  who created it.

How should a conservator proceed when these aspects conflict? Or when
the definition of the character of the cultural property is not agreed
upon by everyone?  Perhaps, for example, I think an artifact's proper
aesthetic character is to retain all the accretions of its history,
whereas my colleague likes it to look like it did when new.  Bring onto
the scene additional specialists and authorities of many different
sorts, and conclusively determining "the character" of a cultural
property-- aesthetic, conceptual, or even physical--is not likely to be
such a simple matter.

So, what should govern the conservator's actions in the likely event of
a wide range of views and/or the existence of disagreements?  How does
she/he determine the ethical path?

>  III. While acknowledging the legitimate right of society to
>  make use of cultural property, the conservation professional
>  shall serve as an advocate for cultural property, its
>  preservation, and its appropriate and respectful use.

The first clause sets up Us against Them.  Why?  Don't we practice
conservation ultimately for bigger purposes than simply physical

This position underscores the fact that nowhere in this document is
conservation philosophy linked to a broader, overarching purpose.  I
believe it is just this unwillingness to identify with a larger mission
that is defeating us in so many situations with scholars, researchers,
curators, etc.  It would be awfully nice to see a statement in this code
that enables the ethical conservation professional to come to a plan of
action, make decisions, collaborate, and--yes--compromise in order to
achieve more inclusive objectives, without violating the Code of Ethics.

Also, claiming the role of serving "as an advocate for cultural
property" is a bit presumptuous.  It belies the (debatable) belief often
held by conservators that "cultural property" is essentially the
physical matter.  There are many ways in which a person can righteously
"advocate" for cultural property.  It all depends on what you consider
the essential meaning/value/purpose of a cultural property.

>  IV.  The conservation professional shall practice within the
>  limits of personal competence and education as well as within
>  the limits of the available facilities.

For what purpose, or for whom, is this written? Isn't the problem here
that an educated and competent professional doesn't need to be told
this, and those who do need to hold back don't know it (nor will this
warning straighten them out)?

>  V.   While circumstances may limit the extent of conservation,
>  the quality of conservation must not be compromised.
>  Furthermore, the quality of conservation shall not be affected
>  by the value of the cultural property.

This ethic is, I think, probably based on very high-minded principles,
but it just doesn't stand up in the workplace.

Assignment or recognition of "value" for cultural property occurs every
day in conservation decisions, whether we like to think so or not.

For instance, the art historical or social-history value of a piece of
cultural property is routinely cited to justify the cost/time of doing
extremely extensive conservation work, e.g., absolutely complete
documentation, testing, consultation, research, experimentation, very
slow treatment execution, etc.

And less valued things are commonly delegated to less skilled, less
competent, less excellent subordinates.  We might well teach technicians
to do repairs on posters at the county historical society, but we would
never let them do repairs on drawings by Leonardo.

Why do we cop out of grappling with this?  Why don't we acknowledge that
decisions are constantly made on the basis of value--value of all
kinds--and try to sort out how to make participation in assessments of
value(s) fair, balanced, and as informed as possible?

I believe that one large and too-little-discussed problem in
conservation is that conservators routinely make decisions based on
their understanding or beliefs about the value of the cultural
property--its aesthetic value, market value, historic value, research
potential, whatever--and they don't even consciously recognize that this
is what they are doing: assigning value and acting accordingly.

I think the solution to this problem is to explicate this ethic much
more fully. It needs to be clarified, and the thinking and concerns
behind it needs to be expanded and explained.

>  [section deleted here]
>  IX. The conservation professional shall treat all professional
>  relationships with honesty and respect, seek to ensure the
>  rights and opportunities of all individuals in the profession,
>  and recognize the  specialized knowledge of others. The
>  conservation professional shall not detract from the dignity
>  and credibility of the profession.

"The conservation professional shall not detract from the dignity and
credibility of the profession" is, in my view, absolutely inappropriate
to decree.

People should be entirely free to be undignified and non- credible. As
in all other walks of life, it reflects on the individual and perhaps
the individual's employer, not the "profession." As to challenges to the
dignity/credibility of the profession--can't conservation take the heat?
Are we unsure whether we can withstand it?

I would be cheered immeasurably to hear this code say, instead: "The
conservation professional shall participate vigorously in the debate,
critique, and reexamination of the practices and philosophy of the
conservation field in an unbridled and unending effort to improve it."

That's what this field needs, not loyalty rules and a leadership
worrying about the "image" of the profession and attempting to impose an
appearance of harmony and unity.

> [section deleted here]
>  XIII. Each conservation professional has the obligation to
>  promote understanding of and adherence to this Code of Ethics.

Why is promotion and assertion of this code necessary outside one's own
personal sphere of professional behavior?  What if you don't agree with
everything in this document? Are you ethically prohibited from
challenging it?

> ---[portion deleted]---
>  2. Disclosure: The conservation professional should share
>  complete and accurate information regarding materials or
>  procedures, analysis and research. The conservation
>  professional should recognize the importance of published
>  information, especially that which undergoes formal peer
>  review.

The second sentence does not logically follow the first.

What does "...recognize the importance of..." mean here, and what does
it have to do with the ethical obligation to disclose?  Why is this
written in such a wiggly way? Does it intend to mean that the
conservation professional should read more published literature; i.e.,
more conscientiously stay abreast of other professionals' disclosures?
Or does it mean he/she should publish more literature?

Furthermore, what does "published information...that undergoes formal
peer review" have to do with disclosure? What would peer review have to
do with most of the kinds of disclosure a conservation professional
should be doing? Personally, I'd like to know a lot more about exactly
what people are doing with cultural property in their care, and why, and
I don't see the necessity of peer review for this type of disclosure.

I applaud the "Guidelines" placing obligation on the ethical
professional conservator to disclose, but I think it can be done very
well in many forms and forums.  And as much as I think disclosure of
complete and accurate information regarding materials, procedures,
analysis, and research is extremely important,  I think the "Guidelines"
also need to state the professional obligation to
discuss/debate/critique/question what is disclosed, and make it clear
that such activity is at the heart of any field that engages in
scholarship or professional activity.

> ---[portion deleted]---
>  7. Confidentiality: The conservation professional should
>  consider relationships with owners or custodians as
>  confidential. Information derived from examination, scientific
>  investigation, or treatment of the cultural property should
>  not be published or otherwise made public without permission
>  in writing.

I couldn't believe my eyes when I read this. I think the fact that this
"guideline" embodies commitment to the reputation and financial
interests of the owner/custodian, above all, is obvious, as does its
disregard for item 2., "Disclosure."

In 1986, _WAAC Newsletter_ published a very interesting article about
disclosure, written by conservators Chris Stavroudis and Leslie Kruth
and gallery director Wendy Brandow. From this article:

"A privilege [a legal confidentiality privilege] is only created where
there is perceived to be some public benefit to the creation of that
privilege. For example, in the doctor/patient privilege it is
rationalized that the privilege is essential to maintain full
communication between patients and their physicians and thus to assure
that the patient will receive appropriate treatment. Withholding
information for fear that the doctor might at some later date testify
against you, could endanger your health at the time of treatment. This
is also true with respect to the attorney/client privilege--full and
fair representation of a client requires complete candor between the
parties. It is difficult to believe that the conservator/client
relationship is one which the law would find as in need of
confidentiality as the relationships to which privileges are typically
applied. In the conservator/client relationship there is no overriding
concern that requires, as a matter of public health and welfare, that
full candor exist between the parties. Nor is it likely that the
conservator/client relationship is one which would be protected by the
concept of privacy. In most states...privacy...extends only to certain
"intimate" information. ...A stranger cannot call your bank and ask for
your checking account balance. That is private information. However, the
relationship between a conservator and the client's artwork is not one
which is sufficiently intimate to create in the client the reasonable
expectation of secrecy on the part of the conservator."
("Confidentiality of Records: Perceptions and Reality," by Chris
Stavroudis, Wendy Brandow, and Leslie Kruth, in _WAAC Newsletter_, v8
n2, May 1986, pages 2-3)

So, my question is, what on earth is the ethics basis for this
guideline? I would have expected it to be directly prohibited.

                   Conservation DistList Instance 7:6
                 Distributed: Wednesday, June 23, 1993
                        Message Id: cdl-7-6-009
Received on Monday, 21 June, 1993

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