The term “best practice” irritates me. I identify as a white, middle-class woman and mid-career conservator. Intrinsic and assumed aspects of identity inform my observations of our field of heritage preservation. Counter to my training and role in an academic setting, I offer here personal, heuristic observations that may inflict unintentional harm. It is my intent to articulate these observations in a manner to welcome learning and growth.
“Best practice” refers to methods or techniques that are accepted as superior to others, since their employment yields consistent, favorable results or has become the practiced means for conforming to legal or ethical requirements (wikipedia.org; dictionary.com). It is often used interchangeably (and will be in this essay) with “standard practice.” This latter term refers to “something considered by an authority or by general consent as a basis of comparison; an approved model” (dictionary.com). This seems like a reasonable approach to address the myriad needs of heritage preservation.
In our professional context, I question who is the authority, when was this practice accepted, and how was it determined? Further, who are we excluding and harming by qualifying a specific practice as “best,” when by the very nature of what we do and the uniqueness of preservation challenges, all possible solutions and practices could not have been tried and evaluated to inform what is “best”?
I recently asked a few colleagues to share their thoughts on “best practice” with me. One remarked that professionals are discerning and can read a best practice and determine if they want to follow it. I agree that our field attracts intelligent, discerning people. However, the qualifier “best” implies that you are counter to acceptability if you choose a different solution or that you have agency to create original work divergent from institutional norms. That is harmful messaging and also assumes that the process in determining a best practice is not itself biased or flawed. It assumes that the goals for preservation are universal and static.
A difficult truth is that “best practice” is an example of white supremacy culture (whitesupremacyculture.info). Best practice strives for perfection and demands the “objective” approach of white-centric institutions and systems. It assumes one solution is superior to others. It preys on fears that if another path is followed, the result cannot be excellent. Further, it reinforces the internalized norms of the dominant society within our heritage spaces. These norms dictate what “[…] we collect, interpret and preserve […] as valuable, but the criteria […] has centered the culture of white, straight, male-dominated society as the pinnacle of culture[;…] when we collect, interpret or preserve the cultures of marginalized or oppressed peoples, they are labeled, or “othered” as different than the norm” (MASS Action toolkit, pp 34-35).
I do not believe that this is the intention of heritage professionals publishing or sharing what they believe to be best practices. These are offered as a means for sharing the results of solutions that have worked for an organization over time; I am often humbled by the willingness of our colleagues to share information, expertise, and experience. However, by codifying the “best” practice and narrowing the discussion to exclude other practices, the field does not benefit from the process or discussion.
Because preservation goals may not all be the same across communities, institutions, and disciplines, we must re-examine what we mean by “best practice.” Does the term meaningfully encompass methods or techniques that yield consistent, favorable results? Words matter. People matter. Removing “best practice” from our lexicon will not remove excellence in collection stewardship, conservation practice, or any other facet of heritage preservation. It simply acknowledges that “common practice” is really what we mean and allows practitioners’ agency to evolve while being inclusive.
Rebecca Kaczkowski is the Preventive Conservator at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, where she undertakes exhibits conservation, museum environments, collection storage, and collection-care training projects. Hired in 2015 into a newly established position, Becky facilitates collaboration across the Smithsonian via a research program focused on collections stewardship. She earned an M.S. in art conservation from the University of Delaware and holds a B.A. in art history and German language & literature and an M.A. in museum studies from The George Washington University. Becky is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation and currently serves as Chair of the Materials Working Group and the Membership Committee.