Conservation in Australia, Past Present and Future: Preprints from the AICCM National Conference, 19 – 21 October 2011 Canberra


The philosophical framework underlying the conservation profession is rooted in the past. John ruskin lives on in conservators’ fundamental belief in the importance of the physical remains of an object, and in their perception of restoration as a largely destructive process. The traditional model of museums as hallowed halls of learning survives in conservators’ conviction that visitors should admire objects but not touch them. The twentieth century political interest in preserving physical things from the past even gave birth to organized conservation in Australia, through the Piggott report of 1975. These influences have driven the development of a philosophy that puts the preservation of the existing fabric of an objects above all else. Change in the fabric of an object is seen by conservators as a dilution of the accuracy with which it can represent the past. It is damage, and therefore must be prevented. The AICCM Code of Ethics enshrines this philosophical approach, and by giving it this seal of approval, implicitly renders other approaches suspect.

In the wider heritage world, however a revolution has occurred. Significance is now understood to reside not in the physical fabric of the object, but in the meanings that people attribute to it and the feelings of connection and ownership that they have for it. Intangible aspects of the past that are connected with, or experienced through, the object are considered heritage as much as the physical fabric of the object itself. The conservation profession, though, as become disconnected from this broader world of heritage scholarship and concepts of significance and meaning have had very little impact on conservation thought or practice; often, in fact, such concepts are actively rejected as being irrelevant or promoting unethical practices. Conservators who do wish to embrace such ideas find themselves violating the state ethics of their profession, and frequently suffer both personal guilt and negative judgement of their peers.

Making significance and meaning part of the rationale treatment development, however, can assist conservators to balance the long-term survival of an object with its ability to engage people, and should be seen as raising of philosophical standards rather than as a lowering technical standards. This presentation will explore the relevance of the significance concept for conservators, and the possibility of reframing conservation ethics to provide more flexible and effective guidance for future challenges.


2011 AICCM National Conference, Canberra
Paper author:
Alison Wain