JAIC 1978, Volume 18, Number 1, Article 9 (pp. 52 to 58)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1978, Volume 18, Number 1, Article 9 (pp. 52 to 58)


David A. Shute

1.1 Background

THE NATIONAL CONSERVATION ADVISORY COUNCIL (NCAC) was established in 1973 as a forum and a coordinating body for voluntary cooperation to assess and find ways to meet national needs in the conservation of cultural property and to provide leadership for long-range planning in the United States. Conservation encompasses three explicit functions: examination, preservation, and restoration. Examination is the preliminary procedure taken to determine the original structure and materials comprising an artifact and the extent of its deterioration, alteration, and loss. Preservation is action taken to retard or prevent deterioration or damage in cultural properties by control of their environment and/or treatment of their structure in order to maintain them as nearly as possible in an unchanging state. Restoration is action taken to return a deteriorated or damaged artifact as nearly as is feasible to its original form, design, color, and function with minimal further sacriface of aesthetic and historic integrity.

NCAC membership consists of museums, libraries, archives, historic properties, national and regional professional groups, training programs and regional laboratories. A roster of NCAC's 53 institutional members is appended to this statement. Since its inception, NCAC has received major, annual support from the National Museum Act, and some additional support for specific projects from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

In 1976, NCAC published a survey of problems and resources in conservation generally, entitled Conservation of Cultural Property in the United States,2 and a report on regional centers. In 1977, NCAC released a report on architectural conservation and issued a position paper on energy shortages and resulting hazards to cultural property. In 1978, NCAC circulated for comments a discussion paper on a national institute for conservation and published a report on libraries and archives. In 1979, NCAC will publish reports on needs for education and training and on scientific support for conservation.

NCAC's interests and projects extend far beyond the conservation needs of museums. This broad interest is based on awareness that any national plan for conservation in the United States must reflect both the general and specific needs and problems encountered by all repositories of cultural property, not just those of museums. However, it is important to note that the primary effort by NCAC between 1973 and 1975 was directed to the desperate need to provide adequate, professional, conservation care to the artistic and historic collections housed in museums in the United States. The field of museum conservation and training of museum conservators is far more organized and developed than other fields of conservation at this time. NCAC has relied largely on museum conservation experts for guidance and leadership in studying national conservation problems.

The statement which follows contains both the opinions of NCAC which are reflected in its published and working reports and my personal opinions, based on six years experience working with representatives of NCAC's institutional members, officers, and study committees.

1.2 Statement

THE FOLLOWING COMMENTS are directed entirely to providing conservation care to the collections entrusted to American museums. For the record, however, it should be recognized first that large numbers of valuable and academically important artifacts are presently housed in institutions that cannot be considered museums, and in private collections. In many cases, these artifacts eventually may become a part of the United States' cultural patrimony, and are excluded from consideration at this time only in order to focus on museums' current collections and the problems of providing such collections with adequate care.

There is no intent in these comments to diminish the importance of the many other functions of museums; however, it must be recognized that providing adequate conservation care to collections is basic to the success of every museum in fulfilling its purposes, whether they be research, education, and/or exhibition. In fact, care of collections is one of the three principle responsibilities identified in the accepted definition of a museum.

Unfortunately, a review of museums' conservation facilities quickly demonstrates that little effort is expended on conservation care of collections in comparison to the other budgetary items. In 1974, a survey of museums conducted for the National Endowment for the Arts, Museums USA, which dealt with size, budgets, governing attitudes, and priorities among museums, indicated that directors of museums tend to give strong verbal but weak financial commitment to conservation. More than three-fourths of the directors rated conservation as “very important,” second only to education, but only one-tenth considered it a priority for funding, even from new resources.3 This same sentiment was expressed earlier. 1969, in an American Association of Museums publication, America's Museums: The Belmont Report, which stated: “I question whether even a small percentage of the museums in this country are doing anything more than presiding over the steady deterioration of that which they have been instituted to preserve.”4

Since that time, there have been improvements made by a number of museums in providing their collections with quality care and conservation service. And of great importance, a number of Federally established and private foundations have laid the groundwork for programs that will aid museums in obtaining improved conservation for their collections. Unfortunately, these efforts are, at present, so few and so underfunded that the effect nationally can only be described as marginal. A major step forward, that of bringing the attention of some Federal officials and agencies to the vital role of conservation in museums, has been accomplished. This is only a beginning, and much remains to be done if the level of effort necessary to preserve the collections housed in American museums is ever to be attained. Part of this effort must be met through support of conservation by the Federal Government, and part must be met by museums. Private foundations and industry will need to be encouraged to continue and expand the additional support they are currently providing to museums and museum-related organizations. In order to achieve maximum efficiency and returns for the dollars spent on conservation, coordination of efforts and expert conservation advice will increasingly need to be obtained from existing organizations, such as the American Institute for Conservation and the National Conservation Advisory Council. As currently organized, NCAC provides a forum for cooperation among Federal and private institutions deeply concerned with conservation.

The remaining sections of this statement will deal with the broad questions posed by the Working Group on Federal Museums Policy.

Question #1: “What are the financial or other needs of American museums that most appropriately warrant Federal Assistance?” If collections in American museums are to be preserved for present and future generations, if they are to be maintained in proper condition for study and exhibition, then conservation must be granted both a philosophical and a financial priority within museums' budgets. Conservation planning must be an integral part of every museum's prospectus for each year of its operation. According to NCAC's principle report, “funds for conservation now available are very limited. For example, if a minimal 5% of the museum budgets in the United States were allocated to conservation, only a few hundred of the thousands of museums in the nation could afford to have even a two-man conservation staff.”5 There is no assurance, however, that even a few hundred museums will direct adequate funds to meet this need. The thousands of museums that cannot afford an in-house conservation staff and laboratory are faced with a particularly pressing problem of obtaining professional conservation service for their collections. Although many museums cannot afford even part-time conservation care for their collections, others attempt to solve this most urgent problem by regularly employing private conservators to treat individual artifacts, or by joining regional conservation centers where overhead expenses can be shared by a number of institutions.

An obvious problem is money; a less obvious, but vital, problem is educating museum personnel to understand and recognize the need for conservation. Inflation has reduced greatly the number of services a museum can provide. Even well-endowed museums find it increasingly difficult to maintain a balance between their expenses and their needs. Therefore, it is difficult to institute conservation programs in museums that are already hard pressed to meet existing expenses. Yet it is pointless to allow the collections, the heart of every museum, to deteriorate to a condition where they cannot be studied and where they are unsuitable for exhibition. If the situation of benign neglect is permitted to continue, future generations will not be able to benefit from the artistic creations of the cultural past.

“Ultimately, the responsibility for better preservation and care of the artifacts constituting our national heritage rests with the directors and curators of the museums that hold them in safe keeping. Conservators can be trained to do the necessary work, but unless directors and trustees are made fully aware of the needs of their collections, there will be little sustained and properly supported effort to protect them effectively; institutions will continue giving conservation low priority. To stimulate and sustain budgetary commitments for conservation over those generally practiced in the past, a conscious, planned education effort based on sound, balanced advice and information must be made to increase the awareness of curators, administrators, trustees, collectors, and the public.”6

To summarize, museums need financial support for conservation services. Of critical importance, they also need educational programs to promote general understanding about conservation among their personnel at all levels.

Question #2: “Do Federal programs, as currently constituted, meet those needs?” Although several Federal programs give some priority to conservation, the combined level of available support is inadequate to meet the demands for conservation services. Each of the Federal programs currently lending financial support to museums must, of necessity, be concerned with all aspects of museology. It is recognized that museums face many problems operating and maintaining existing programs. The need to institute new programs and policies will require additional funding which rarely can be found in a museum's operating budget. Therefore, Federal support is vital if conservation programs, whether in-house or extramural, are to be improved. Federal programs need additional funds specifically directed towards various aspects of providing conservation services to museums.

Federal programs could easily encourage improvement within museums of an increased commitment to conservation. When a museum requests financial support from the Federal Government, it would be beneficial to know how that institution protects and preserves its collections. What conservation capability does it have? What is its conservation plan? Does it use in-house conservators, private contract conservators, membership in a regional conservation center, or does it have little or no conservation capability? A simple and useful expedient for promoting a greater financial commitment to conservation would be for Federal programs to give extra weight to applications from museums applying for financial support that have some conservation capability, or at least present a plan to obtain or develop it.

New programs are also needed. In mid-1978, NCAC released a “Discussion Paper on a National Institute for Conservation of Cultural Property7 which proposes that such an institute could provide three major functions: information services, education services; and scientific support services. It is not intended or envisioned that such an institute would replace any of the currently existing Federal programs; rather, it is intended to improve conservation capability in the United States, implementing programs that are not and can not be effectively and efficiently carried forth by existing Federal programs. Copies of the 55 page discussion paper are available from NCAC's Administrative Office.

To summarize, there is a need for Federal programs to have additional funds specifically directed towards conservation, a need to evaluate the conservation capability of museums seeking Federal support, and a need for additional programs to provide services not currently available.

Question #3: “Are the limited Federal museum assistance resources being applied efficiently and equitably?” With regard to support of conservation, assistance resources are, indeed, very limited. Every attempt should be made to upgrade conservation financially to the level of its philosophical priority among museum directors. There are several Federal programs that provide funding for conservation. Most of them do so both efficiently and equitably within the scope of their programs. There is little, if any, overlap between the funding they provide for conservation. The National Museum Act, administered by the Smithsonian Institution, provides stipends to students in formal academic conservation programs, encourages research projects in conservation, sponsors some conservation workshops, and provides professional assistance support to organizations such as NCAC. Unfortunately, the annual budget for NMA is less than one million dollars, competition is very high, and the number of grants are modest in relation to the need. During its last reauthorization cycle, NMA was requested to spend a specific minimum on conservation and was asked to consider the advisability of creating a national institute for conservation. NCAC has received support from NMA, and has developed a working paper on a national institute which is now being reviewed before making more formal proposals.

In contrast to NMA, the Museum Programs of the National Endowment for the Arts supports programs that are mostly oriented to the practice of conservation. NEA supports conservation training programs, regional conservation centers, and museums and museum-related organizations that need assistance with program costs.

The Institute of Museum Services also has authority to support conservation. IMS provides support to museums for operating expenses, and could, therefore, support some of the expenses of operating a conservation laboratory or paying conservation personnel.

The National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation have not traditionally or regularly provided support to conservation in museums. In the future, NSF could greatly serve conservation and museums by supporting basic and applied scientific research on conservation problems. NCAC is preparing for publication in March, 1979, a “Report of the Study Committee on Scientific Support for Conservation of Cultural Property,” which will detail the scientific support needs of the conservation field and identify its importance and usefulness to museums.

To restate one important idea, the review process for any kind of assistance request from a museum should include a statement of that museum's capabilities or program for conservation. Each museum's variety of interests and programs must, of necessity, revolve around its collections. However, if the collection is deteriorating or improperly preserved, the effectiveness of the museum in carrying out its mission is proportionally limited. Therefore, it is inefficient to grant financial support to a museum without considering the present condition of that museum's collection. Similarly, it would be more equitable to favor a request from a museum with a commitment to conservation, all other considerations being equal, over one without such a commitment.

To summarize, assistance resources are applied, in general, efficiently and equitably. However, assurance of conservation capability in museums would be an improvement. Funds for conservation are very limited, and all Federal programs need to be encouraged to continue and expand support for conservation. With regard to conservation, there appears to be no practical overlap of support among Federal programs.

Question #4: “Are there ways to streamline administrative practices in Federal museum programs to better serve the museum community?” As with any field of interest, the ideal is to get the maximum for the minimum. With regard to support of conservation, for museums, it would be invaluable to have a system for coordinating overall efforts and for specific requests for assistance for conservation. This would also prove efficient for other areas. NCAC's 1976 report, Conservation of Cultural Property in the United States, “strongly recommends that a permanent advisory and coordinating council be established to fill this vital role. This body need not be organized along the same guidelines nor with the same membership as the present NCAC. The coordinating council should provide a forum for policy discussions and long-range planning for conservation activities nationwide and should encourage public and private support of those activities. It should take major responsibility for formulating and coordinating long-range proposals to increase the number and quality of trained professional conservators in the United States and appropriate personnel, such as technicians and analysts. The coordinating council should serve as a forum for the development of new programs to improve conservation services, research, and training throughout the United States, facilitating communication among professionals in different fields of specialization and in different geographical areas.”8

The following specific suggestion is a personal one, which also has the complete support of Dr. Robert L. Feller, NCAC's President. It might be useful to have a central committee to receive all conservation-related requests for assistance. A panel of experts could review the applications, comment on them, and forward them to the Federal program which, most suitably, should respond to the request. In cases where different parts of an application should be considered by two or more Federal programs, duplicates of the application could be circulated, identifying the parts appropriate for consideration by each Federal program.

In order to avoid any possibility of the coordinating committee becoming a political lever for any single Federal program, selection of both the committee's base of operations and its membership will require careful consideration and cooperation among the Federal programs. One possibility might be to establish such a group as a coordinating committee of the Federal Council on the Arts, thereby safeguarding its independence and efficiency by placing it above political considerations. The committee's membership should rotate regularly to maintain flexibility in policy making and to assure that the variety of areas of expertise in museum conservation are accorded equal consideration.

The development of such a coordinating committee would mean each applicant would need to complete only one application, instead of two or three. One panel of experts (in this case, conservators and conservation scientists) could review and comment on the technical usefulness of the request. Federal programs would not receive from the same institution similar requests cloaked in different terms. Each Federal program would, of course, decide on the part of the request sent to it. The coordinating committee could then send the requesting institution or individual a letter outlining the parts of the request, if any, which were approved by each program. Each of the Federal programs would then proceed to process the part of the request they had approved.

1.3 Conclusion

MANY AREAS OF CONCERN have not been presented in this statement. NCAC has published a general report, “Conservation of Cultural Property in the United States,” and a “Discussion Paper on a National Institute for Conservation of Cultural Property” which might provide more specific details on conservation needs, problems, and proposed solutions. All NCAC reports are available from the NCAC's Administrative Office, c/o A&I 2225 Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560.


1. This article has been approved for publication by the Executive Committee of NCAC.

2. National Conservation Advisory Council, Conservation of Cultural Property in the United States, (Washington, D.C., 1976) p. 31.

3. National Endowment for the Arts, Museums USA, (Washington, D.C. 1974) pp. 25–31, 180.

4. American Association of Museums, America's Museums: The Belmont Report, ed. Michael W. Robbins (Washington, D.C., 1969) p. 57.

5. Conservation of Cultural Property in the United States, p. vii.

6. Ibid., pp. 11–12.

7. National Conservation Advisory Council, Discussion Paper on a National Institute for Conservation of Cultural Property, (Washington, D.C., 1978). This discussion paper is intended to stimulate further exploration of the nationally important question of creating a national institute for conservation of cultural property in the United States.

8. Conservation of Cultural Property in the United States, pp. 23–24.


1.1 Permanent Members

  • American Institute for Conservation
  • Architect of the Capitol
  • Association for Preservation Technology
  • Heritage Conservation & Recreation Service
  • Library of Congress
  • National Archives and Records Service
  • National Park Service
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation
  • Smithsonian Institution

1.2 Associate Members

  • Balboa Art Conservation Center
  • Bay Area Art Conservation Guild
  • Brooklyn Museum
  • Center for Archaeometry
  • Center for Conservation & Technical Studies, Fogg Art Museum
  • Center on the Materials of the Artist and Conservator
  • Chicago Area Conservation Group
  • Cleveland Museum of Art
  • Conservation and Collections Care Center, Peebles Island
  • Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
  • Cooperstown Graduate Programs
  • Detroit Institute of Arts
  • Greenfield Village & Henry Ford Museum
  • Intermuseum Conservation Association
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Maine State Museum Regional Conservation Center
  • Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
  • National Gallery of Art
  • Newberry Library
  • New England Document Conservation Center
  • Pacific Regional Conservation Center
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities
  • University Museum (Philadelphia)
  • Upper Midwest Conservation Association
  • Walters Art Gallery
  • Washington Conservation Guild
  • Western Association of Art Conservators
  • Williamstown Regional Art Conservation Laboratory
  • Winterthur/University of Delaware Program
  • pending: Corning Museum of Glass Metropolitan Museum of Art

1.3 Observers

  • Advisory Council on Historic Preservation
  • American Association of Museums
  • American Association for State and Local History
  • American Institute of Architects
  • Association of Art Museum Directors
  • Institute of Museum Services
  • Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
  • National Bureau of Standards
  • National Endowment for the Arts
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • National Historical Publications and Records Commission
  • National Science Foundation
  • Public Buildings Service
  • Society of Architectural Historians
  • pending: American Library AssociationArcheological Institute ofAmericaKresge FoundationSociety of American Archivists

a: Notes
Entire Article

Copyright � 1978 American Institute of Historic and Artistic Works