Saturday, February 5, 2011

Standards or Stories

I’ve recently finished reading Durability and Change: The Science, Responsibility, and Cost of Sustaining Cultural Heritage and I’m trying to figure out a good way of responding to what I’ve read and also craft blog entries that might be somewhat engaging reading. The book consists of presentations given at a conference, followed by group reports on various conference themes.

Ch. 17 “Group report: What are appropriate strategies to evaluate change and to sustain cultural heritage?”

Not surprisingly the conversation of this group turned to the question of standards and the codification of standards both for assessing and describing the rate of deterioration, as well as for procedures to sustain cultural heritage. It seems to me the desire for better standards and more comprehensive adoption/adherence to those standards is a perennial concern across disciplines, but especially in the world of conservation.

I accept that the goal of the idea of standards is good conservation, which is a noble goal, but I’m not certain that standards is necessarily a good path to that goal. I think the ongoing quest for standards is often a veiled - or not so veiled - effort to control the decisions and actions of colleagues for which we disapprove - especially for colleagues whose training, credentials, experience we do not think is adequate. Having a set standard, and some mysterious method for enforcement, means that the hack at the institution down the road who calls himself a conservator has to stop doing what he is doing.

Additionally, the emphasis on standards also seems to be a way of trying to reign in all the things in life we don’t have control of - all the unknowns. We know that we will never have all the potentially useful and relevant knowledge, we will never consider all the possible options before acting and so we appeal to standards to ensure the neither we, nor anybody else, makes any serious errors. The presence of good standards, we hope, will assuage our fear that we might unwittingly do the wrong thing.

I’m not against standards, or at least I’m not against promoting the best possible work we can do, but I resist efforts to control others (especially passive aggressive ones) and I resist thinking that through codified standards I can compensate for all uncertainties and unknowns. You can‘t. Deal with it.

I am going to boldly suggest that we don’t need better standards, we need better stories. We need to hear more honest stories of conservators doing their work - what they did, how they made decisions, what worked, what didn’t. Telling good stories means telling honest stories which involves being vulnerable and telling stories of things you did for which you might be ashamed to tell your professional colleagues. (We all have those stories.) We really need to hear and tell stories of failure. Nothing will help us remember to test the ink before washing the paper like a really good story of someone ignoring that step to devastating effect.

Of course, we also need to hear good stories of success. We need to hear the stories of seasoned pros, and of enthusiastic novices. I remember at a small preservation conference that I helped coordinate - our after dinner speaker was James Craven, head of conservation at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan and the godfather of library conservation in Michigan. With his dry wit, curmudgeonly charm, and many, many slides he told a couple stories of items he had worked on. Nobody left the room without having a better idea of how a good conservator goes about the business of conserving.

In telling our stories we together build up the story of what good conservation looks like, we build up the story of how a good conservator acts. No one person or organization has the one story that defines conversation, but rather the larger story is made up of many voices and may stories. In hearing all these stories, the next time we have to deal with an object we will ask ourselves how do I and this object interact in a way that fit’s the story of good conservation.

((As I re-read what I’ve written, I think to myself, this sounds like exactly what a seminary graduate would write - and probably sounds exactly not like someone with a physical sciences degree would write.))


  1. I should clarify a statement in this posting - when I mentioned the "hack at the institution down the road who calls himself a conservator" I was not referring to any specific person. I especially was not referring to the conservator who works at the institution down the road from me and who is far more the conservator than I ever will be.

  2. Good clarification, Eric is a good guy, I'm sure he didn't think you were talking about him.

    This is an excellent post and one worth more discussion in the open. I think it is difficult to admit mistakes in public, and if you are in private practice you could be sued. Our little (not so) secret is we all make them and the most of us figure out how to fix it. In fact, the more you look at books from centuries past you realize that this has been the practice for hundreds of years. We like to think that binders of yore were always perfect, or our best known conservators never make mistakes, but they did and we do.

    I encourage everyone who works for me to share through a monthly all-lab staff "Tip Session" where we share tricks, tips or problems we solved. Or we share things that didn't go as planned, how we fixed them and lessons learned. It builds communal trust and respect, and allows us to learn new things (or gives you support when you really need it).

    Maybe we need some sort of forum, a safe place, to publish this sort of thing where we can all sympathize and all learn from it. Doesn't something like this exist in teaching hospitals? when a patient dies or complications are severe the whole staff gathers to talk about what happened and how to make it not happen again. At least they do that on TV. Maybe we conservators need that forum.

  3. While I haven't read the book you mention, I take a very different view of standards. "Standard" treatments in conservation really don't exist and I am personally unaware of a push for them to come into being. Each object is different and decisions need to be made according to its particular needs and significance.

    It is quite agreed that it is impossible to control who calls themselves a conservator and what treatments they end up choosing. A few years ago this question was raised at AIC. Conservation programs have tried to formally fill the education need and give those who are not conservators themselves a way to gauge someone's credentials (of course there brilliant thinkers who have never been to school as well as terrible ones who have graduated from the best ones). Considering a pure model based of education does not include the traditional 10 year apprenticeship that many great conservators have gone through, AIC floated the idea of certification. The certification idea ended up failing, but it acted as a standard. The question arises: without a standard, how does the laymen choose a good conservator and not a hack?

    Standards have two main points things. First they help define a reliable thing. Take the permanent paper standard as an example. This standard allows us to know which papers fit that standard without having to do our own testing or needing the equipment to do it. The second thing standards do is allow others (in the present or the future) to know the characteristics of a treatment. The microfilm standard (while not a conservation treatment it relates) lets others know if that copy of microfilm was created in a trusted way as well as informing future preservation librarians on the care of it over time.

  4. To anonymous
    Thanks for your thoughtful response. I appears as if you've thought more about the issue of standards than I have.

    I think that perhaps what I was thinking about when I wrote about standards, was not the full gamut of standards that you comment on. Although I wasn't explicit about it, I see that I was responding to the chapter authors' desire for standards as they related to gauging/prescribing conservator activities, or in their words standards for "procedures to sustain cultural heritage."

    The gist of what I was trying to say in my post was truly less about standards and more about the idea that I think in honestly sharing stories of our conservation activities, we together help create better "procedures to sustain cultural heritage" and in turn become better conservators.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    Several years ago (maybe 6 yrs?) there was an excellent post on the AIC-OSG list (which I wish I hadn't lost - as I have no idea who made it) that, from what I can remember about it, raised the idea that the act of conservation could be seen as a narrative, yet we often write in such a way as to remove that narrative from our reports. The little experiments, and happy (and occasionally not so happy) accidents, the journeys we take, all form a part of what amounts to the story of the conservation of each object. I really liked the idea, and thought it somewhat interesting or relevant to the point you raised in your post.

    Also... I'm glad you're writing posts about this book, as it looks very interesting but the $500 price tag puts it a little out of the reach of conservators who, like me, are without institutional libraries.

    Cheers, Dan.

  6. Dan, I'm glad that the post resonated with you. Re: my writing about this book - when I first saw this book cited and thought it might be an interesting read I searched online and also saw the $500 price tag. What's up with that? Thankfully, there are libraries out there that pay that kind of money for books, and thankfully they participate in interlibrary loan, because there is no chance I, or my employer, will.