SZMELTER, I. The Strategy of Conservation Treatment: Considering General Conservation Theories and Tenets, 2000

Posted on Sun, 10/12/2008 - 08:19

In this article Prof. Iwona Szmelter - Academy of Fine Arts, Faculty of Restoration. Warsaw, Poland- reflects on decision-making processes and projects of conservation treatment using prof. Ernst van de Wetering's Model for Decision-Making as a starting point.

Orginally published in BIKOS, Conservation Restorers Bulletin, vol. 11 no. 2, (41) 2000, pp. 168-170

Dramatic transformations in the concept and practice of conservation took place in the last decade of the 20th century. The mainstays of modern knowledge are theories formulated at the end of the 19th century by Alois Riegl and his disciple Max Dvorak. It was not until 100 years later that authoritative organisations in museology and conservation published guidelines for practice and codes of ethics for individual professional groups involved in the protection of cultural property.

Basic principles of practice in conservation-restoration, which are commonly perceived as guidelines for professional protection of cultural heritage and current recommendations, include:

  • obligation to conduct diagnostic and identifying examinations of an object,
  • interdisciplinary nature of the art of conservation-restoration, which is consists of different disciplines of science, technology and art,
  • necessity of performing a scientific analysis of the premises of conservation decisions,
  • respect for the authentic substance of an object,
  • preferences for the programme of preservative conservation and the restriction of creative interventions of conservators,
  • marking conservation interventions; separation of the scope of conservation treatments in an object or in its conservation documentation,
  • postulated reversibility of conservation treatments performed,
  • integrity of an object and its surrounding.


New regulations
The accomplishment of the 20th century is the arousing of interest in culture and cooperation in the field of protection of cultural heritage above regional and national interests. This collaboration takes place among thousands of interdisciplinary specialists and, passively, by participation of consumers who understand their role of heirs of so-called ‘high culture’. A novelty and the pride of the 20th century is also the creation of academic conservation institutions, which perform functions that earlier were fulfilled exclusively by scientific and research communities centred around museums and simultaneously developing a university education system according to academic criteria. Characteristic of Polish conservation with its 50-year-long tradition is a high level of university conservation education, both in theoretical and practical subjects. Education in the Polish model of conservation-restoration is based on M.A. courses that combine the interdisciplinary humanities and the sciences with parallel artistic preparation in individual specialities.

In the ongoing discussion about qualifications for the profession of conservator-restorer, which were specified in ICOM CC documents (1984), numerous evaluating documents were published in the 1990’s, such as the Document of Pavia (1997) and FULCO Project finalised in the Document of Vienna (1999).
In 1997 ENCoRE (European Network of Conservation and Restoration Education) was established, which united the academic aspirations of European conservation schools related to the code of ethics and professional guidelines of the union conservation organisation E.C.C.O. (European Confederation of Conservators' Organisations) developed in 1994. In the light of recent documents there is still no public consensus about the definition of the profession of a conservator-restorer.
This situation seems to reflect the evolutionary nature of this profession. Conservator-restorers are prepared at western universities to participate in public life by attending courses in management, conservation, and museology. In Poland, a code of ethics with the background of current conservation principles and theories is being prepared by several teams of experts. There are social initiatives of reforms of conservation authorities, which both from the professional point of view and from the standpoint of citizens will form a basis for a new law on the protection of cultural property. Below I present a suggestion for so-called ‘conservation design’, preceded by a model for decision-making in the field of conservation and restoration of cultural heritage.

On every occasion choices and premises of conservation decisions and the proposed programme of conservation treatments should be preceded by an analysis of causes of damage, evaluation of the state of preservation and optimal solutions, which are tantamount with compromises between many factors.

MODEL OF A CONSERVATION DECISION illustrates the importance of basic elements of the decision-making strategy in protection of cultural heritage.

Please follow this link to the image


As a result, a so-called PROJECT OF CONSERVATION TREATMENTS is prepared on the basis of the decision taken.

The axis of the model is the well-being of an object and around this central position of the item 'subject, type of object' vectors of elements of the model and interdisciplinary premises of conservation decisions converge concentrically. The author of this concentric logic model is Ernst van de Wetering, who supervises work of the team of the Research Rembrandt Project. The decision-making model, though positively built around the primary interest of the object (the well-being of culture), is not itself perpetuum mobile.
Therefore, inclusion of new significant premises of conservation decisions, such as function and use of the object, is indispensable in my opinion. The whole model is placed in the field ‘area of mutual interactions’, which I understand as the field of discussions and conflict of arguments. This is an illustration of how data about the object, its historical and cultural context, techniques and technologies, state of preservation and documentation of damage and their causes presented above have a collective impact on the conservation diagnosis of the object.

The next stage of the conservation design is specifying the programme of conservation-restoration treatments, which is original in nature and requires superior competence and experience.
On the basis of the diagnosis, with the well-being of the object in mind, an objective and premises of conservation should be defined, and afterwards the programme of work in the sequential order of possible treatments should be defined with the specificity of the object taken into account: preventative/prophylactic conservation, active conservation (methodology, treatments, resources) and restoration (programme).
The next threshold is the necessity of taking into account the function and future use of the object as well as conservation assumptions.

Problems with the creation of the programme may result from socio-economic factors, involving mainly lack of professionalism, as so far these programmes have been a result of pressures from the strongest investors and committees in the team, which consisted of “experts” in various fields and not of conservators who are in the best position to evaluate objectively the perceived well-being of the object. An academic background in conservation is not always a guarantee of correct choices and arguments. A mistake may be the result of lack of possibilities and time for a comprehensive analysis of an object, possible one-sided experience of a conservator or lack of financial backing for necessary examinations. Incidentally, these examinations may be unhelpful in a situation where conservation authorities select the cheapest tendered option instead of a professional conservation programme.
Moreover, the sociological aspect should not be underestimated. For the well-being of the object one should avoid a tendency to the dumping restriction of a programme, the selection of the cheapest materials and underpricing as well as the attitude of “Besserwisser”, as they were called by our grandparents, or “better informed” and confident advocates of ready solutions. It is known that even teams of experts are appointed according to their talents, capabilities and up-to-date expertise. The conservation programme, however, as one of elements of conservation design, should be presented completely objectively without preferences concerning specific solutions.
The optimal solution should be chosen taking into account all the aspects mentioned above. In this model, the entire area of the decision making and the conservation programme is called the area of mutual interactions or conflicts of arguments.

An important stage is to define a clearly formulated conservation decision, which is a climax and a basis of the proposed programme of treatments, instead of a mere calculation of results.
Another innovation is the use of the term, introduced by the Kraków artistic community, of so-called conservation design as an original and creative contribution of the conservator-restorer. Preparation of the conservation project, as in architectural designs, requires independent regulation of the rights of conservator- restorers.

On the other hand, the implementation of the project should, as its natural consequence, result from the decision-making model and an original conservation project. In larger projects, in the process of multi-phase conservation-restoration treatments, there may arise concerns at meetings at different stages of advancement of work concerning existing discrepancies within the project. The conservator-restorer bears a direct responsibility for the well-being of the object in these situations. In these cases an abundance of possible and feasible solutions implies the return to the decision-making model and reconsideration of its elements as well as possible correction and departures from the programme of treatments specified in the project.

There are no borders in terms of tenets and theoretical assumptions that could be universal for the entire diversified cultural heritage. A flexible approach based on the decision-making model and on the basis of the conservation project is ethically justified.

An attempt to systematise definitions of the roles of different branches of protection of cultural heritage

Conservation-restoration - according to the old saying ars sine scientia nihil est this discipline consists of interdisciplinary humanities, technical examination and conclusions based on practice.
Definitions in conservation-restoration and the precise meanings of numerous terms used in the practice of protection of cultural heritage can be ordered according to the degree of intervention of individual treatments in the matter of works of art.
The preservation of 100% authenticity implies a limitation of conservation treatments to:
- prophylactic conservation,
- protection,
- exposure,
- re-composition (anastylosis) ,
- protective conservation ( One should be careful about the fluid border of the extent of intervention, e.g. every active conservation treatment can be categorised according to purism and aestheticism. Even cleaning a surface of secondary accretions is stigmatised by aesthetic choices, so what can be said about impregnation or strengthening?)

Conservation intervention with an increasing range of work causes natural reduction of the authenticity of objects.
An extended range of work includes:
- restoration,
- restoration with moving,
- restoration of reconstruction,
- methods of historic reconstruction or use of modern forms,
reintegration - supplementation (with restoration),
integration - completion,
restitution - reinstatement.

The following treatments are of an extra-conservation nature:
- copies-reconstructions - imitations (retrospective creation),
- adaptation (e.g. architectural interpretation),
- pastiche, extension, annexes.

An additional and different conservation problem is related to the approach to the heritage of modem art, which sometimes eludes the theoretical recommendations presented above. The phenomenon of modem art which is separated from traditional disciplines, and the meaning of art (with so-called “ready made" elements, conceptualism, etc.), justifies our controversial questions about possibilities of departures from conservation theories and tenets. Premature aging of artistic media and their self -destruction pose both not only technical difficulties, but also those of an aesthetic nature. The issue is raised of the departure from the criterion of the necessity to preserve the authenticity of the substance in degenerated fragments of objects whose expression is entirely different from the message and code created by the artist. It is then that the circle of views in the theory of art since the concept of Aristotle, who appreciated the idea, not the object of art, becomes visible. This is a brave, even iconoclastic, statement in the context of current conservation doctrines.
There is nothing that can exempt us from the consideration of the priority in conservation, i.e. respect for authenticity and protection of historic substance. In this field as in the heritage of older art, the compliance with the strategy of decision making and conservation design discussed above constitutes a guarantee of professional correctness.
Analysis of further premises in the decision-making model will prevent us from premature conclusions and will ensure respect not only for conservation principles but, above all, for the well-being of the object as the highest value.