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Subject: Labelling


From: Patricia Smithen <patricia_smithen>
Date: Tuesday, March 12, 1996
I am writing this regarding Dominique Rogers' suggestion in Cons
Conservation DistList Instance: 9:60 that accession numbers could be
inscribed on objects as the numbers are a part of their history. She
asks:  "Am I very wrong?"

The short answer is:  yes, you are very wrong!  You have stepped
into a hornet's nest with this question and I am glad you did.  It
is very easy for those of us in conservation to take for granted the
principle of reversibility, and to forget that others in the museum
field may not have been similarly indoctrinated.

My feeling is that it is wrong to assume that every piece of history
associated with an object should be permanently affixed to that
object, be it accession numbers, conservation/restoration
treatments, results of vandalism or accidents, etc.  It is a very
serious decision to interfere with an object, especially if that
decision permanently affects the appearance or structure of an
object.  In terms of applying accession numbers to cricket balls, my
reasoning might go something like this:

    Why does it need an accession number?  To identify it in the

    How can it be applied?
        1. Permanently, by inscribing (for example)
        2.  In a reversible medium.

    Advantages of applying it permanently:  the object will always
    be identifiable, as long as the associated registration
    documents are around.  Disadvantages:  The visual appearance of
    that object is permanently altered.

Discussion: The accession number is not necessary for the physical
survival of the object.  There are alternative methods to
identifying it that can be reversed, should this become important.
The "history" of its existence as a part of that collection can be
recorded in a more appropriate location (the registration

Related issues:  How important is it that the object be permanently
identified as a part of that collection?  Here is the real issue
because no one knows the answer to this.  The safe route is to say
that it will not be at all important, and that in 100 years someone
will be cursing the idiot who defaced this treasure despite the
alternatives to that course of action.  Without going into any other
arguments, it is easy to see that permanently applying an accession
number is not necessary, and therefore should not be done.

Conservators often spend  lot of time repairing, replacing and
removing previous conservation and restoration treatments (often
cursing the good intentions of our predecessors).  Whenever
possible, we interfere as little as possible to maintain the
physical and aesthetic appearance of the objects.  Every time we
perform a treatment, the object is permanently changed in some way,
and each time we do this there has to be some justification for our
actions. For conservators and anyone else who deals with
art/heritage material this should always be a difficult decision,
carefully thought out and reasoned through, considering both the
past and the future of the object.  And always asking:  Why is this
necessary?  Is there a better alternative?

I have barely skimmed the surface of this subject here and I'm sure
that I have missed a lot of important points that, hopefully, others
will bring up.  Thanks to Dominique for reminding us of an important
ethical issue.

Patricia Smithen

                  Conservation DistList Instance 9:64
                  Distributed: Sunday, March 17, 1996
                        Message Id: cdl-9-64-002
Received on Tuesday, 12 March, 1996

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