The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 17, Number 5
Oct 1993

Preventive Conservation in Latin America

by Bettina Raphael

The author is a private conservator of artifacts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and an experienced consultant for Latin American collections.

A seminar on "Preventive Conservation in Latin America" was held on August 19 and 20 in Washington, DC. The conference was jointly sponsored by APOYO (Association for the Conservation of the Cultural Patrimony of the Americas), the Getty Conservation Institute, the Library of Congress, and the Conservation Analytical Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution. The seminar was planned "to promote the exchange of information between professionals working in the area of preventive conservation in the Americas" and was one of the first international gatherings on this topic.

The group of 22 speakers included representatives of nine Latin American and Caribbean nations as well as the United States. Papers were presented at four panel sessions on the following topics:

Over 100 individuals from different locations and backgrounds attended the seminar and brought an optimism and dynamic spirit to the sessions. For North and South Americans alike, the program offered a unique opportunity to discuss specific preventive conservation projects and courses underway in museums and libraries/archives in various countries.

Participants and sponsors at the seminar readily acknowledged that preventive conservation is the only responsible course for conservators, restorers, museum professionals, archivists, and librarians to take to meet the massive, long-term preservation needs of most countries. Insect activity; high humidity, especially in tropical areas; light; and cramped, inappropriate storage conditions were among the major causes of deterioration noted for both the archival and museum collections. Preservation problems were, in fact, often not that different in institutions from the two continents; however, in Central and South America the scale of some problems can appear more daunting as the human and material resources available are often extremely limited.

Eight of the 22 papers dealt with preservation concerns in libraries and archives. Many large national repositories in Latin America house invaluable collections of manuscripts, books, photographs, and other documents from the 17th century to the present. Lack of trained staff and funding sources, changes in institutional administrations and policies, and negligent attitudes toward the protection and preservation of the cultural patrimony in libraries and archives have left many of these major collections in critical, even disastrous condition. Presenters from Peru, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Colombia described projects for the renovation of archival facilities and the rehousing of documents which offered some of the most dramatic examples of preventive conservation successes. One of the most stimulating presentations described a multi-year project in the National Archives of Paraguay which is transforming the conditions under which its over two million documents are being housed. The work has involved the replacement of shelving units, the training of technicians on the staff and from the community, and the construction of thousands of protective, acid-free boxes and folders using minimal resources. [Note: This project was described in the May 1993 Abbey Newsletter, on p. 8. A similar project in Ecuador, headed by Pablo Diaz, was described on page 4 in the same issue. -Ed.]

The following are some salient themes which ran through many of the panel sessions during the seminar:

  1. Preventive conservation as a systematic, integrated approach to preservation involves all aspects of a collection's care and management. This includes everything from the housing and organization of the materials, to their accessibility, registration, data management, handling and use policies, duplication technologies, and decisions on treatment priorities.
  2. Conservators, preservationists, and related professionals must play a more active role in developing national legislation, policies, and specific guidelines for the preservation of cultural documents and artifacts. For instance, libraries and archives should help direct national preservation standards for the papers currently being used in official documents. At the same time, public awareness needs to be raised through education and the media to the importance of cultural patrimony and its protection.
  3. Preventive conservation projects must remain practical and responsible to the specific cultural, climatic, and economic conditions of the country, making use of and developing local resources and technologies. At least three countries in Latin America are actively pursuing private industry for assistance in developing supplies of stable papers to replace poor quality industrial papers and as substitutes for Japanese tissue and other acid-free conservation papers.
  4. Protection from damp environmental conditions and the physical rehousing of paper documents and books in acid-free containers were considered priorities for most library/ archive collections. It was pointed out that these preventive efforts would do more for the long-term preservation of collections than any individual or mass treatments, including deacidification.
  5. Much more training in preventive care thinking and practice is needed at both the professional and technician levels. In the early stages, such training efforts may require the support of international specialists and agencies, but in the long term, success will depend upon the development of a network of skilled and informed individuals within each country who can train others.
  6. Opportunities for continued collaboration between the Americas are needed and mutually beneficial. APOYO, the newsletter in Spanish on preservation issues, has a circulation of over 1,000 individuals throughout the Americas and is seen as a significant source for ongoing exchange and communication.

Abstracts of the papers presented at the seminar can be obtained from Amparo de Torres, Conservation Office LMG 38, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20540 (Fax: 202/ 707-1525).

A selective summary of papers at each session is being prepared by the session chairmen and will be published by the Training Program of the Getty Conservation Institute, 4503 Glencoe Ave., Marina del Rey, CA 90292. [It is expected to appear in six or eight months. The 26-page abstracts volume, which is bound with the address list of participants, has the ISBN number 0-8444-0805-0. For details contact APOYO, PO Box 76932, Washington, DC 20013. -Ed.]

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