Marjorie B. Cohn
WHEN I SAY THAT our revised Code of Ethics is an achievement of the first generation of conservation, I do not mean to imply “a certain age” in us who have proposed and accepted it, but rather the age—the epoch—of the profession itself. The first generation was the half-century that has elapsed since restoration was brought out of the closet and into the light of objectively tested, documented and shared materials, techniques and procedures. Our ambition, the ideal embodied in our Code of Ethics, became one of service: to the perfectly understood artistic or cultural object, perfectly perserved to the limits of its past history and its ideal future natural life, perfectly accessible to its present audience and forever accompanied by a perfect record of our ethical, skillful, scholarly, tactful, imaginative and reversible utmost efforts on its behalf.
An absurd formulation? I do not mean it to be. I think that in our heart-of-hearts we hope for this. We feel as strongly as we do because we see so often in objects brought to us a legacy of neglect, abuse, ignorance, mysterious and unrecorded substances, shoddy practice and false economies. Not only do we want to do better, not only do we want to do our best. We want to do the best for each and every thing.
To that end our professional association has not only adopted a Code of Ethics but also established means to disseminate information about materials, techniques and procedures of objects and their treatment. While these include various publications, conferences and the FAIC, I refer here to the Journal. Usually the subjects of articles submitted to this magazine attempt to advance our ideal as I have defined it, and properly so; for the first generation's mandate can never be fulfilled: each new professional advance is a step to the next.
Inevitably some day another generation will write its Code of Ethics. Its direction is suggested by practical discussions already begun in the literature on, for example, museum climatology, salvage operations after disaster, field archeology procedures, etc. But the philosophic basis of mass treatment has not yet received the consideration in print that it requires before it can be considered a mature and accepted ideal. What guidance does the conservator have today, for example, in planning a mass treatment when there is no doubt that its effect on a measurable percentage of objects within the collection under consideration will be harmful rather than beneficial? There are no loopholes in our Code of Ethics: we must identify and exempt from treatment this fraction of the whole.
Yet as intelligent professionals, we also foresee that ethical considerations could themselves preclude this; for the value of a collection as a statistical, conceptual or historical entity can dictate that each element in it, however precious in itself, must preserve its traditional relationship to the whole. Even economic considerations can have an ethical aspect, if the expense of professionally acceptable intensive treatment of selected objects in a collection prohibits extensive treatment of the whole.
There is no doubt that during the whole history of our profession conservators have seriously considered these problems. There is also no doubt, however, that the conservator has traditionally deferred to the curator or other custodian of the collection to provide the larger framework for treatment decisions; this has often been inevitable and appropriate. But it is beginning to be realized that the professional conservator may be in possession of a greater understanding of the physical facts, causes and effects which affect not only the preservation but the interpretation of a collection. This conservator can and, I believe, should have a larger voice in establishing curatorial policy. We have proved our essential value as conservators of individual objects; we should have a comparable role in shaping decisions which inevitably precede the selection of these objects for our attentions.
But rather than rely upon each of us, independently, in isolation, to establish this dialogue with curators and the administrators of collections, should we not discuss the ethical issues as well as practical methods among ourselves? There is much to think about and much to say before the next generation can match the achievement of the first.Marjorie B.Cohn