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Subject: Conservation principles

Conservation principles

From: George Brock-Nannestad <pattac>
Date: Tuesday, August 1, 2006
This discussion started in the furniture restoration field, but it
is of a very general nature. Various areas have slightly differing
definitions of ethics, but certainly they must be based on the same
fundamental principles: we have an artefact, and we want this
artefact to tell us something about the past, and to continue to do
so. You could say that the artefact contains information of very
diverse types. Any activity that destroys part of the information
may cause us to draw a different conclusion about the past, and that
would be wrong--our conclusions would be based on a lie. It is
because of this risk of untruthfulness through restoration that we
need to express ethical approaches.

The information content in an artefact is constituted by its
composition and its context, and it is modified by repair. It will
not necessarily become an uninteresting artefact by repair (during
its useful life) or restoration (during its eternal collection
life). I have described these modifications and their influence on
the decision of conservation treatments (and ethics as the
responsible handling of all of this) in a paper on Operational
Conservation Theory, with the following bibliographical data:

    Brock-Nannestad, G.,
    'The rationale behind operational conservation theory',
    in Conservation without Limits, IIC Nordic Group XV Congress,
    23-26 August 2000, Helsinki Finland, Preprints, ed. R.
    Koskivirta, Helsinki 2000-21-33

I also gave a presentation of this theme at the 2003 AIC in
Arlington, VA (and John R. Watson of Colonial Williamsburg
Foundation touched similar themes). I have had several requests for
copies, which I cannot handle administratively, and I am looking for
ways of uploading this paper to a permanent website dealing with
this theme circle.

    **** Moderator's comments: I have already suggested that it be
    contributed to Conservation OnLine, but take this opportunity to
    remind you all that this is exactly the kind of use for which
    CoOL was created.

Let me just here confirm that saying "information" I obviously need
also to say "appearance" or "aesthetic input". It would be no good
to disassemble an automobile completely, in all its parts and their
constituents, to gain complete knowledge of a mechanical and
chemical nature, unless it could be put together again to provide
its appearance as found. Alternatively, a conscious decision could
have been made to analyze this exemplar to bits, in order to leave
others alone. Or the appearance could have been thoroughly
documented before the destructive analysis.

In Conservation DistList Instances 17:47 and 17:48 (December, 2003)
the soldering of pewter was discussed. Why would conservators need
to solder pewter? In my view it would be unethical to perform modern
re-soldering of a broken solder joint, because then the artefact
will represent something different, it will now tell a lie. We will
have destroyed any historical metallurgical information that would
be present in the two separated parts. And we will have destroyed
the physical trace of the abuse the artefact was subjected to, its
history. We will have performed a repair of function, but the
artefact's function for its intended purpose was per definition
terminated when it entered a collection. From that moment, the
purpose of the artefact became to represent best possible all the
information that can be extracted from it. The only reason for a
conservator to solder pewter is to learn the old process of
manufacture, and that is done in order to understand how old
artefacts were made, to obtain the bodily experience of the original
craftsman, possibly to create copies for artificial ageing and

I believe that first and foremost, in order to be able to undertake
conservation with an ethical approach, you must thoroughly
understand everything about the artefact. You will not be able to
find out everything yourself--you will need specialists, because so
much is forensic in nature, but someone will need to digest the
information and make it accessible. Best regards,

George Brock-Nannestad

                  Conservation DistList Instance 20:8
                 Distributed: Wednesday, August 2, 2006
                        Message Id: cdl-20-8-002
Received on Tuesday, 1 August, 2006

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