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Subject: Conservation nomenclature

Conservation nomenclature

From: Walter Henry <whenry>
Date: Saturday, April 29, 1995
Gregor Trinkaus-Randall <gtrinkaus [at] mecn__mass__edu> writes

>I was a bit disturbed
>to see what is an apparent change in the definitions of
>'Conservation' and 'Preservation' from what has been considered
>accepted definitions during the past decade or so.  I have
>understood 'Preservation ' to be the term that has taken on the
>'umbrella' tenor in including all aspects of activities that deal
>with the long-term retention on items, whereas 'conservation' has
>referred specifically to the hands-on, item-level treatment that
>conservators conduct on items to ensure their long-term retention.
>The former would include, emergency preparedness, environmental
>controls, security, care and handling, etc.  If this is being
>changed we really need to know about it since most people that I
>know in the library/archival fields are using these definitions.

and Jane M. Brown <brownjm [at] musc__edu> continues

>We have enough new language to learn with computers
>without redefining perfectly good words.

I can't help remarking the provincial and ahistorical character of
the postings on this subject and remind the participants that the
terms under discussion transcend current usage within any given
discipline or specialty. (Naturally, I will cede in advance, the
probably provinciality of my own comments, rooted as they are in a
particular historical experience, viz coming of age during a period
when 'Library preservation' and 'Museum conservation' were not seen
as creatures from different planets).

Both Gregor and Jane's comments reflect reasonably well *current*
usage within the library community (though I would quarrel
vigorously with Gregor's characterization of conservators' praxis)
but have little bearing on usage in other disciplines or even on
historical usage within the library community (Gregor's "past decade
or so" sounds about right). Fifteen years ago, my own department was
called "Conservation Office" was headed by a "Conservation Officer",
and was involved with all the sorts of operations that Gregor
identifies as 'preservation', including single item treatment. It
was only after several years that the name was changed as it was at
many other institutions to "Preservation Office" (later

Language is always a site of contest, and like history, is one where
the chronicle is written by the victors. In this case, librarians
tending to hold more power in libraries than do conservators, the
terminology converged with evolving usage within the library
preservation community and reflects librarian's usage. It might have
been otherwise and in the museum community, where conservators have
at least in a few instances joined the directorate, it almost
certainly will. In other spheres (archaeology, ethnography, natural
history, historic preservation, etc.) we may assume a similarly
involved evolution of terminology and a similar contesting of
linguistic turf.

The point remains: to call the terms in the AIC definitions "new"
rewrites the history of a cross-disciplinary enterprise from the
vantage (and to the advantage) of one sector of that enterprise.
Especially, the notion of a generic relationship between
'preservation' and 'conservation' seems to me to be difficult to
defend. Just for fun, here's the Art and Architecture Thesaurus
scope note for 'conservation', prepared by a group consisting of
conservators from several disparate specialties. The AAT is serves
as the basis for formal controlled vocabularies for purposes such as
indexing, and reflects documentary and literary usage, rather than
quotidian usage. Nevertheless, it reflects--or tries hard to do
so--the prevailing tenor of language within the user community and
serves as at least evidentiary resource. (Candor demands
that I confess to having had a hand in this work, so you will take
my argument with as much salt as you feel necessary):

    Use for the discipline involving treatment, preventive care, and
    research directed toward the long-term safekeeping of cultural
    and natural heritage. For actions taken to prevent further
    changes or deterioration in objects, sites, or structures, use
    "preservation," and for changes made to an object or structure
    so that it will closely approximate its state at a specific past
    time, use "restoration (process)."

Note that his construct implies that preservation is a specie of
conservation, but this relation is not reflected in the thesaurus
per se (i.e. 'conservation' and 'preservation' are Related Terms).
'Preservation,' then, is given thus:

    Designates actions taken to prevent further changes or
    deterioration in objects, sites, or structures. When such
    actions are taken on buildings or other structures specifically
    for cultural, aesthetic, or historic reasons, use "historic
    preservation." When changes return an object or structure to a
    state of historical correctness, use "restoration (process)."
    For actions taken to return to sound condition an already
    deteriorated structure, use "rehabilitating." For the activity
    of keeping people and things safe from harm or deterioration
    generally, use "protecting." More generally, for the treatment,
    preventive care, and research directed toward the long-term
    safekeeping of cultural and natural heritage, use

I am home on vacation now and don't have access to my files of print
materials, so you are spared--for the moment--a longer polemic which
would require documentary support. As noted in the original posting
in Conservation DistList Instance: 8:83, the Murray Pease Report
would probably make a good jumping off place for situating the term
'conservation' in an historic context in the non-library/archive
sphere (it was written when paintings conservators were the largest
group within AIC). Barbra Higginbotham has written at some length
about the history of the concept (and to some extent the term)
'preservation' within the library community. Perhaps she will find
time to comment.

Finally, one further comment:

Clare Hills-Nova <hillsnov [at] is__nyu__edu> writes

>I felt I should jump in immediately on the
>definition of the term Cultural property. Is there a particular reason
>why the adjective "ethnographic" is not used?

Again, these terms must be seen in a broader context than that of
any particular specialty. "Cultural property" is a far broader class
than that entailed by "ethnographic property". Unless, we take a
very much wider view of ethnography than is commonly done, most of
the materials in my library would not be considered "ethnographic"
materials, but their status as cultural materials is unassailable.
I'm sure my colleagues in natural history conservation would make a
similar argument. Only from a point-of-view of a non-terrestrial
ethnographer, observing human culture panoptically, might
"ethnographic property" be considered as broad a enough term as
"cultural property".

                  Conservation DistList Instance 8:86
                 Distributed: Saturday, April 29, 1995
                        Message Id: cdl-8-86-008
Received on Saturday, 29 April, 1995

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