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.))