Conservators can no longer think solely about the longevity of the tangible object. We must also strive to preserve the intangibles: the meaning of the object, its purpose, the intended settings it was created for and role it was made to play. Figuring out how to factor in the intangibles, how to preserve the non-physical elements surrounding physical objects, will be a key challenge in the years to come. It’s also an example of how conservators must constantly defy the assumptions of their profession for their work to remain relevant to the public.
At a recent conservation conference Samuel Jones from the British think-tank Demos presented a session entitled ‘Conservation in a Time of Change – The Ethics of Care’. He spoke about the many challenges that the conservation profession faces and how we need to make ourselves relevant in the public eye. There were many important insights shared through this presentation, particularly in relation to public perceptions about conservation:
We need to change the public notion that conservation is something that goes on behind closed doors, in a lab, and with things that people aren’t allowed to touch. We need to find the way to connect with people and our profession, the caring of the cultural materials.
Mr Jones also made a significant point about the role of conservators within society:
Conservators don’t just fix things when they are broken; they stand for a wider social ethos of care, in which we individually and collectively take responsibility and action. Heritage and conservation are part of an ethics of responsibility and means of connecting with deeper values. They also play a vital role in building a greater awareness of the cultures around us and valuing of things past and present, for the benefit of now and the future.
He included many examples to address the point of public involvement, including the story of the Cerne Abbas Giant in the UK.