Monday, April 4, 2011

A brief reading of "Contemporary Theory of Conservation"

Contemporary Theory of Conservation By Salvador Muñoz Viñas.

I've taken my time to finish reading this book because I knew that when I finished it I would feel obligated to write about it - and this task is daunting. (This was one of the few books in the blog's reading project where I purchased my own copy, and thoroughly enjoyed scribbling all over it.)

There is much that I could comment on or converse with in this book. I've underlined, starred, commented on nearly every page. But doing this would likely result in a blog post nearly the 214 pages as long as the book - and that's just not good reading. Instead, I'll focus on what I understand as the primary theme of the book, with occasional side comments. (It's an embarrassingly slight reading of a very rich book.)

The book is a clearly written, expansive, thoughtful creation/revelation of a/the contemporary theory of conservation. His intended task is not to create a new theory but in revealing and explaining what he sees as the current theoretical framework for conservation he bears some responsibility for crafting this theory. .

While not using these categories (perhaps a wise choice), he discusses the move of conservation from modernity into post-modernity where focus moves from object to subject. This is not a transition which has uniformly been accepted by the conservation world as one will find individuals and institutions on all points of the theoretical span.

In creating a definition of conservation he first explores defining the concept in terms of actions, and then in terms of the objects worked upon. "If a chair gets broken, it is repaired. If the chair was made by Brustolon [or Stickley] it is conserved." (p. 28) There are a variety of notions or terms people have used to define what is an object of conservation - like "heritage" or "cultural property" - but ultimately, he settles on the object's communicative//symbolic qualities. "What every conservation object has in common is its symbolic nature; they all communicate something." (p. 45)

An object can communicates many meanings, but those meanings which qualify the object as a conservation object include: hi-cult meanings, group identification meanings, ideological meanings, and sentimental meanings. Over time, the meanings of a conservation object will change. One just has to think of the meanings of the Bamiyan Buddhas from the meanings for their creators to what they mean to the current conservation community. "In most conservation objects, the symbolic, communicative function takes precedence over the original, material functions it could have had." (p. 57)

With the enlightenment, science became the acceptable, preferable, and sometimes only way to analyze reality, and scientific-conservation became the acceptable model/theory of conservation. Scientific conservation is first and foremost objective, or entirely object focused, and the purpose of conservation is to reveal the "truth" of the object through the use of "hard" science. "The integrity of the object fundamentally lies in its physical features and attributes." (p. 81) While scientific-conservation became the dominant method for conservation, Muñoz Viñas notes "it is striking that no relevant theoretical effort has been made to justify the validity of this approach." (p. 71)

I will say that the author's description of scientific conservation and scientists struck this author as a bit of a caricature - a convenient foil against which to portray a different, more correct theory of conservation. I always get suspicious when disparaging adjectives start dropping into the language like "strange graphs with tiny incomprehensible labels." (p. 76) Admittedly, I have very little experience with conservation scientists, but I do have plenty of experience with scientists from other disciplines and these folks do not fit in with the closed-minded, dogmatic scientists that Muñoz Viñas portrays.

Having dispelled the 'revealing truth/objectivism' model we move on to the contemporary communication of meanings/inter-subjectivism model. Within this theory objects become conservation objects "because a number of people agree that they have desirable social, private or scientific meanings, not because of their material features." (p.153) "When the relevance of meaning is acknowledged, truth simply ceases to be the guiding criterion of conservation operations, and communicative efficiency becomes the likely substitute." (p. 153) Ultimately, it is the subjects, not the objects, which are served by conservation, and decisions as to what and how to conserve are the product of conversations and negotiations among the various stakeholders. "The best possible conservation operation is the one that provides the most satisfaction to the most people." (p. 193)

"The ultimate goal of conservation  as a whole is not to conserve the paper, but to retain or improve the meaning it has for people." (p. 213) He does not suggest a purely demagogic conservation (vote for our next conservation project by texting 'papyrus' to 12345) and accepts the authoritative value of experts, but suggest that all stakeholders negotiate conservation decisions.

How it all might relate to libraries

A while back I once something along the lines that conservators should never talk about meaning. Muñoz Viñas has proven me wrong - although he is a member of a small community who can speak intelligently about conservation, object/subject, and meanings. Never has a "conservation" book so resonated with my studies of hermeneutics during my seminary days. (While I always thought there was some connection between my studies of how we discern meaning from texts and my working in library conservation, the connection has never seemed closer than when reading this book.)

This book, though incredibly valuable, continues to highlight some challenges for me. The book primarily addresses the art/architecture world of conservation. Libraries and books receive little to no mention. This is not a fault of the book or the author, but a challenge for me as I attempt to figure out how the world of libraries and library collection fits within this understanding of conservation. I think people communicate with and derive meaning from books/library collections/libraries differently than they do art objects, and that difference should affect how conservation is approached. I am still, however, trying understand the art/book differences.

When working on defining preservation he discusses what he defines as "informational preservation" - which is certainly more familiar to library preservation interests. One interesting comment he makes about information preservation, "It is also interesting to note that the knowledge required for performing informational preservation is usually different from that of the conservator." (p. 25) Where libraries are interested in information preservation, preservation professionals need to know about things like microfilming standards, and digital imaging and preservation.

One of the disconnects I feel in the library conservation world is I seldom hear the general public talk about books as objects of meaning and I seldom hear library conservators talk about the meanings of the texts of their objects. Approaching conservation of a book with a holistic understanding of a book is a large and daunting task. Perhaps it is often not worth the effort, but never considering the book with all its stakeholders and all its meanings belittles the significance of the conservation task.

This is an important book that deserves more readers - especially by people in the library conservation world.


  1. I should have added that Muñoz-Viñas will be one of the keynote speakers at the AIC annual meeting this year.

    "Bringing the European perspective to the discussion, Salvador Muñoz-Viñas takes the view that rather than seeing conservation work as a neutral act, we must acknowledge the alterations and bias inherent in the process of conservation treatment. Having acknowledged the alteration inherent in the process of conservation, we may approach the development of ethical guidelines not based on deontological rules but rather a complex and multifaceted set of realities."

  2. Great review Kevin. I have also been making my way through this book, and this is inspiration to finally finish! I wonder if conservation is late enough to the post-modern game to actually leap frog to "post post modern", the way some countries will bypass land-lines and go straight to cell phones.

    Conservation's embrace of often unquestioned science and environmental "controls" makes us nothing if not "positivists", as I understand it. And maybe post-modern has had its day? Have you looked at Richard Sennett's book The Craftsman? He would perhaps be a good addition to your bookshelf, and I would love tom know what you thought of it. Thanks for you always interesting work , chela metzger

  3. Thanks Chela. I remember reading about the Sennett book, but never got around to reading it for myself. I think I'll add it to my list. I'm pretty sure it came out around the same time as "Shop Class as Soulcraft" which I quite enjoyed.