Social and Cultural Sustainability

Looking at the practice of conservation in the last decades we have seen a major change from material-centred conservation to people-centred conservation. While the material, or the physical objects, remain essential as a conduit between past, present and future, hindsight proves that many cultural objects and cultural sites are dependent on public engagement with them, not only for their maintenance but also for their continued significance and relevance.

In terms of sustainability of the activity it could be summed in these terms; what type of conservation, and for whom?

A people-centred approach means that we recognise the need to conserve objects because they hold value for people, groups or communities. Value can be multiform; historic, artistic, social, religious, affective, ritual, political… and the same object or site can hold simultaneously many values.

The concept of value is also subject to sustainability: retaining value may imply retaining use, particularly in the case of living heritage. Losing the potential of being used or practiced may strip an object or site of part or total of its value.

This has led institutions worldwide, and in Australia in particular, to establish a framework to assess significance as a necessary criterion for considering conservation. Significance 2.0 is a tool widely used to assess needs and attribute grants to fund conservation activities. In terms of future impact of the conservation activities, it is increasingly recognised that to be sustainable, conservation needs to engage with the community who either uses and maintains the heritage or is expected to visit the collection and engage with it.

Various ways of associating conservation, collections and communities have been and can be explored.

  • turning users into carers for religious heritage located in remote places such as village temples of the Himalayas, via illustrated and user friendly handbooks showing the effect, linking it to the cause and providing cheap and applicable solutions for remedy. It could be to call a carpenter, a plumber, or simply clean a drain or dust a statue, and could also be call a conservator. The main goal is to implement prevention by increasing awareness and empowering people to become an actor in conservation, at every level of the community.
  • involving community in risk assessment surveys, stating their needs and their resources, and integrating these in conservation plans that take into account community role and responsibilities.
  • involving community in decision making, by providing information and consulting on needs prior to operations concerning heritage
  • involving source community in proper conservation treatments, when meaning resides in continuous possibility or use or of worship, and knowledge is held by specialist craftsperson.
  • involving community in salvaging post disaster, interpretation and display settings, which in turn will facilitate public engagement and fundraising.
  • link conservation to preservation of traditional skills, not only on the object or site conserved, but by encouraging production of new craft from traditional techniques, in order to maintain the skills and promote the interest of the broader community, providing livelihood for craft communities.

These may involve reconsidering principles hitherto thought absolute, such as the possibility of access, the location and aspect of the display, the loan to communities, the reinforcement of objects to allow their ritual use by the community, the need to replace missing parts, the need to recreate images to regain legibility, and an acceptance of the evolving nature of an object or site. It requires flexibility of mind, based on solid structural tools such as significance and risks assessments, and good knowledge of intercultural and international ethical frameworks.

Only if it is purposeful will conservation be justified in the first place, and therefore be sustainable. Without community engagement, conservation loses social meaning, and the power to connect people and objects through time. (SC May 2020)

Reading list

• Clavir, M. (2002) Preserving what is valued. Museums, conservation and First Nations, Vancouver, UBC Press

• Collections Council of Australia, (2009) Significance 2.0, https://www.arts.gov.au/what-we-do/museums-libraries-and-galleries/significance-20

• Cotte, S. Dorji, S. & Nock, D. (2008) A handbook of preventive conservation in Bhutan (Himalayas), in ICOM-CC 15th Triennial Meeting Preprints, New Delhi, India,

• Dhar, S. (2006) Challenges in the context of the living sacred tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, in Saunders, D. (Ed.), The object in context: crossing conservation boundaries. Munich, London, IIC

• ICOMOS (1994) The Nara Document on Authenticity www.international.icomos.org/naradoc_eng.htm.

• Kaminitz,M. & West, R. (2009), Conservation, access and use in a Museum of living cultures, in Richmond, A. & Bracker, A. (Eds.), Conservation: Principles, Dilemmas and Uncomfortable Truths, Elsevier Ltd, in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, pp197-209

• Peters, R. (2008) Approaches to access: factors and variables in Saunders, D., Townsend, J. and Woodcock, S. (Eds.) Conservation and access, IIC 22nd congress London, IIC, London

• Sully, D. (Ed.) (2007) Decolonising conservation, Walnut Creek, Ca, Left Coast Press Inc.

• UNESCO (2003) Convention for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage. https://ich.unesco.org/doc/src/15164-EN.pdf

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Connecting to Community

Navigating spaces between cultural heritage and Indigenous source communities, involves engaging in relationships that are dedicated to enhancing the life and meaning of cultural collections. Engagement begins with the Indigenous source community. The significance in what is not seen, but is constantly present in stories, knowledges, traditions, perspectives and customs transcends time, and is crucial to ensure the physical security and intellectual and cultural essence of cultural heritage is retained and sustained (McCarthy, C, 2011).

Cultural sustainability involves understanding, awareness and sensitivity to cultural differences. It privileges intrinsic aspects of Indigenous culture, where orality, collaboration and community life is at its centre. Changing the focus by placing people at the centre, acknowledges and respects the cultural autonomy of Indigenous peoples, and, the right to self-determination through practices that recognise and respect Indigenous knowledge’s, cultural diversity and traditional practices (McCann, E, 2020 unpublished research).

The role of source communities in the care and management of cultural heritage, is a process that actively acknowledges the connections between cultural material, and the natural world, therefore access to cultural heritage is also integral to cultural maintenance and community wellbeing. A more sensitive approach, does away with rigidity and opens up space for more honest, authentic interaction, and robust, relevant and respectful conversation. It also removes the distance between all involved and humanises conservation practice. People-centred conservation, starts from the community in the decision-making processes; working from the centre outwards, through interaction that elevates Indigenous perspectives, and emphasises ‘ways of doing’ with relevance to ancient practices and unique epistemologies. (EMcC July 2020)

Reading list

McCann, E, 2020, Guidelines for engaging with Moana-Wan Solwara Collections at Museum Victoria, unpublished research.

McCarthy, C, 2011, Museums and Māori: Heritage Professionals, Indigenous Collections, Current Practice, Te Papa Press, Wellington NZ.

UN General Assembly, “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s”, 2 October, 2007.

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Digital

Reading list

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