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Subject: AIC Code of Ethics revision

AIC Code of Ethics revision

From: Lisa Mibach <perygrine>
Date: Saturday, July 10, 1993
re Gary Frost's comments on the draft Code of Ethics:
Gary, I very much appreciated your comments

For me, listening to the discussion on the proposed Code in Denver was a
personal shock, as I realized that for the first time in my 27 years of
(I believe ethical) conservation practice, the Code might actually have
some relevance to what I do, instead of being something I have to hide
away in a drawer; with a few additions/modifications, it might even be
something I could show to colleagues or Museum Directors to explain a
particular choice of action.  That shock was followed by a wave of
strange relief, as I realized that I might not be a second-class citizen
after all, that perhaps I didn't have to feel like an outlaw anymore.

Library/Archive work is not the only field where Gary's points apply: in
historic site conservation we also make repros to preserve unique
objects, and we have for years taken into account the informational
value of an object as a three-dimensional document, and distinguish
multiple, replaceable objects from unique, non-replaceables, tailoring
the amount of treatment we do accordingly.  (I have used "clean only";
"clean and stabilize"; "clean, stabilize and restore" since 1972 for
archaeological materials.)

We also may have to alter an object (say, paint a side table a different
color) to make it serve its interpretive intent.  Sure, we could make a
repro of a commercially-produced 1920's bedside table, but it would cost
$500, compared to the $20 the Curator paid in the Junque Shoppe.  I used
to argue about preserving the historic integrity of the object, while
the Curator maintained that I had to keep my purism relevant.  Now I
think she was right.

Some of us have developed fairly sophisticated ways to "tier" the
collection and decide whether a given object belongs in Category 1:
rare, irreplaceable, unique (probably not to be displayed, as in Natural
History Type Specimen); Category 2: may not be replaceable, or only at
great expense of time and money (like most art work) (displayable only
in a  controlled environment); Category 3 (displayable in an
uncontrolled environment like an open display in a museum or historic
site; object must be replaceable; slow consumption acceptable); or
Category 4, consumables (eg repro brooms, some historic/natural history
materials.  (This is obviously more complex, and I will happily send a
draft of one system to whomever sends me $.50 to cover xeroxing.

And how much time is it worth to document individual steam tractors
(with analytical samples, if you please) which have been produced by a
known company which maintains archives of manufacturing specifications?
I would certainly document a piece of archaeological iron from a  period
which had no written documents, but I don't think I could justify the
same level of documentation for a horn-handled fork from an 18th c. fur
trade site excavation.

And hey, you guys in libraries think you got unique problems?  Try
excavated material from a large dig: hundreds of thousands of individual
pieces of things, which may be numbered and pieced together  _someday_ ,
but for the moment reside in little paper bags and pill vials...(we'll
leave aside for the moment the archaeological belief system that
deterioration is an act of God, and that being inevitable, shouldn't be
accorded resources to prevent...)  A sad consequence of our adherence to
the single object-approach taught in the official art-oriented training
programs, is the avoidance of conservators by many field archaeologists.
As described by a senior archaeologist during a panel in the Objects
Group at the Denver AIC meeting: he earns $14/hr, and bills out at $20+.
When he has 2 days and $1200 to salvage an entire site from a bulldozer,
why should be spend half of it to a conservator to mend one pot whose
shape he already recognizes from the sherds?

Morrow's phrase (thanks, Lynn)  describing "a collections conservator as
a professional conservator who 'manages a high-volume,
production-oriented operation and develops strategies for conserving
large collections of general research materials in their original
format....'" certainly applies as well to conservators of archaeological
and historic collections.

I recently surveyed 38,000 historic objects in one week, and of course
took a "collections conservation" approach of categorizing  rehousing
and environmental improvements to be done by staff and volunteers:
treatments may never happen.

So I suspect that if we actually counted the numbers of things being
worked on, and ran some kind of dollar formulation which included cost
to acquire AND frequency of user-interaction  AND cost to process and
maintain, we might find that the work of the art conservators is
outnumbered by that of the conservators of library and archival
material, historic museum objects, and anthropological and
archaeological collections.

But I am not suggesting an "us or them" approach: quite the contrary!
In fact, I am saddened by what I think Gary is suggesting, that L&A
conservators should jump ship.  I would suggest instead that now is the
time for all good conservators to come to the aid of their profession
and make the Code useful to all of us.  We might find in the process
that we gain new respect from our curatorial colleagues who have found
us less and less relevant, since they have had for a long time to
prioritize collections and the effort they invest in them.  I think it
is not a coincidence that fine arts labs across the country are being
required to take in outside work to support their salaries, like
cafeterias and gift shops, and unlike curators...

This is a wonderful opportunity for us to take stock of how we do what
we do, and how we can be more effective and less isolated from the
decision-making centers of the institutions we work in and for.

p.s., I also agree with Richard Cox about the necessity of enforcement,
but we have to start again, slowly: we threw out 15 years of work on
certification at the business meeting in Vancouver; my analysis is that
no-one would trust anyone else enough to give it a try.  Anybody want to
try a pilot?

pps Lynn Jones, thank you for a most eloquent description: I cannot
think of a collection, "fine" or not, which would not benefit from this

Lisa Mibach

                  Conservation DistList Instance 7:11
                  Distributed: Tuesday, July 13, 1993
                        Message Id: cdl-7-11-001
Received on Saturday, 10 July, 1993

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