Conservation of Movable Cultural Property

Conservation is the technology by which preservation (one of the four classic museum functions: acquisition, preservation, research, presentation) is achieved.

Conservation of Movable Cultural Property

Conservation is the technology by which preservation (one of the four classic museum functions: acquisition, preservation, research, presentation) is achieved. Its relatively recent evolution from the ancient art of restoration represents a fundamental reorientation of museology; while the need remains to restore damaged objects as a last resort, conservation seeks to prevent rather than repair deterioration. The term conservation in this context is not generally understood in the public domain, conservation being normally equated with wildlife and the environment. The development of the conservation discipline in museums originated with the need of curators and restorers to have a better understanding of the nature of the materials in their care, but it was not until the 20th century that major institutions recognized that both the control and the repair of damage depends upon the correct diagnosis of its causes.

One of the first conservation research facilities was established at the Chemical Laboratory of the Royal Museums of Berlin in the 1890s. The British Museum established a laboratory in 1919 and this was followed by others in the US and Western Europe. In 1950 the International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) was founded to disseminate the growing body of conservation knowledge among scientists and restorers, and by 1958 it was able to publish an integrated explanation of the general mechanisms of decay in museum materials. From that time both preventive and remedial techniques advanced rapidly and progressive institutions sought to control the deterioration caused by such environmental factors as temperature, humidity, light, airborne contaminants and biological activity, and by human errors in handling, cleaning, storage, exhibition and transportation. Conservation emerged as a profession based upon the chemistry and physics of materials and of the environment; on biology, history, anthropology, photography, radiography and engineering; and on the history and technology of art and architecture, which in turn influenced all the other disciplines of museology.

Some major institutions in Québec and Ontario had employed restorers intermittently since the 19th century, but by 1970 only the National Gallery of Canada (1956), the Royal Ontario Museum (1956), the National Historic Sites Service (1966), the National Archives of Canada (1966) and, in the West, the British Columbia Provincial Museum - now the Royal British Columbia Museum - (1966) had established permanent units specifically devoted to the conservation of their collections. Nationwide, fewer than 20 persons were employed full time in conservation. In 1971 this small nucleus founded the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAPC) in order to accredit and register conservators, and the following year the Canadian Group of IIC (IIC-CG) was formed to spread technical and scientific information. The IIC-CG was renamed the Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property (CAC) in 1996 as it gained independence from its host organization.

In 1972, as part of its National Cultural Policy, the federal government founded the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) to provide conservation treatment, research and training services to all public museums and galleries. In the same year Parks Canada amalgamated its conservation facilities into a single Conservation Division to serve its National Historic Parks and Sites. However, the development of all conservation agencies was severely handicapped during the early 1970s by the absence of training facilities, and later by the deteriorating economic situation.

The first academic credit course in conservation was offered by U Victoria from 1970 to 1977, but it was not until Queen's introduced an MA program in 1974 and Sir Sandford Fleming College at Peterborough introduced its diploma in conservation technology in 1976 that the supply of Canadian-trained conservators was ensured. Career-development training became available in 1977, when the CCI commenced its conservation internships.

During the 1970s the BC Provincial Museum (now the Royal British Columbia Museum) earned a national reputation for its advocacy of conservation and for its training and consultation services; in several other provinces facilities developed gradually throughout the decade. The Glenbow Museum, the Provincial Museum of Alberta, the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (NWT) and archives in NB, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and BC all established facilities, while in 1979 the Centre de conservation du Québec offered the first provincial government conservation service.

Meanwhile, the unique climatic and geographical challenges of conservation in Canada demanded research and innovation. New techniques, developed by the CCI and ranging from environmental control to the treatment of waterlogged wood and corroded iron, explored the use of light energy as a cleaning tool, analysed artifacts for authentication studies, responded to disasters and provided a nationwide mobile laboratory service. From the totem pole sites of the West Coast to the arctic islands and the Basque settlements of Labrador, conservators of provincial as well as federal agencies devised solutions to problems unknown elsewhere.

By 1980 fewer than 30 of the 1500 provincial custodial agencies employed conservators, and it was evident that financial as well as technical assistance was required. In 1981 the National Museums of Canada introduced a Conservation Assistance Programme, administered by the Museums Assistance Programs, to provide salary assistance to qualifying institutions wishing to establish new conservation positions, and the CCI's mandate was revised to meet the needs of a less centralized national conservation structure. Despite economic hardship, heritage agencies seized the opportunity to develop conservation capabilities to such effect that the nonfederal conservation work force doubled in just a few years.

In the late 1980s CCI collaborated with its sister agency, the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), to develop an electronic Conservation Information Network (CIN) that gives users access to all the world's major conservation libraries and to a wealth of other conservation information. During the same period, CCI inherited the museological library of the National Museums of Canada and created a Museological Resource Centre, with a Museology Reference Database (BMUSE) providing online bibliographic access to its own collections and to those of the UNESCO-ICOM Information Centre in Paris. The online presence of conservation within the museum context grew enormously in the 1990s and into the new millennium with the initiatives of Conservation On-line, The Virtual Museum, and the Canadian Conservation Institute website, to name only a few.

In addition to these developments, the CCI continues to provide treatment, research, training, emergency and advisory services to all Canadian museums, art galleries and archives. Through UNESCO's International Centre for Conservation in Rome (ICCROM), it contributes to conservation training in the Third World, from Africa to Oceania.

The two professional associations, CAC and CAPC, have consistently promoted the highest standards through publications and annual technical conferences and by the adoption of a joint code of ethics. Their success may be measured by their membership, in 2001, of more than 327 individual and 144 institutional members. By the mid-1980s Canada could boast a highly skilled conservation workforce with technical/scientific support the equal of any other country in the world.

The 1990s saw a trend away from a focus on the laboratory treatment of deteriorated objects and towards a more preventive approach to their safeguard. One factor driving this trend was the rising popularity of travelling exhibitions. Under continuing fiscal restraints museum administrations were increasingly drawn towards large budget, high economic yield exhibitions. These "blockbuster" shows did several things for the institutions that hosted them: they yielded much-needed income in the absence of dedicated funds, they provided high public profile, and they added impetus to education, curatorial and display design departments. In order to safeguard museum collections under such changing conditions, conservators adopted risk assessment strategies and programs of monitoring, and concentrated more upon safety and stability in place of interventive treatment strategies. Nevertheless, restorative and stabilizing treatment of museum artifacts remains a necessary focus of conservation laboratory activity.

During a period of economic recession in the late1980s and early 1990s, all cultural institutions suffered financially from severe reductions in government support, and most had to struggle to maintain their conservation capabilities. Even though the recession was short-lived, through the 1990s overall capacity for the preservation and safeguard of cultural property declined considerably. The conservation capacity of small- and medium-sized museums decreased, conservation departments in the larger museums were downsized, and core federal funding for conservation was reduced. As a result of institutional downsizing, and consequent contracting-out of conservation work, the provate sector continued to grow. Although in the first years of the new millennium Canada still has a very substantial and highly skilled conservation work force, the situation has by no means stabilized. There continues to be a need for support for the conservation of movable cultural heritage objects at federal, provincial and local levels.


Further Reading

  • J. Des Gagniers, La conservation du patrimoine museologique du Québec (1981); A.M. Lambert, Conservation in Canadian Museums (1980); National Museums of Canada, A National Museums Policy for the 80's (1981); H.J. Plenderleith and A.E.A. Werner, The Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art (1974, 1st ed 1958); M. Ruggles, "The History of Conservation in Canada: Developments to the Early 1970's," Journal of the Canadian Association for the Conservation of Cultural Property; Philip R. Ward, Keeping the Past Alive (1974) and The Nature of Conservation: A Race Against Time (1986); IIC-CG/CAPC, Code of Ethics and Guidance for Practice, 3rd edition (2000).

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