The conservation field consists of many rules. Some are written down in manuals and codes of ethics, others are passed down in workplaces and classrooms. These are rules like: you must have extensive training to be called a conservator, you should feel lucky to have your job, and you must be neutral and unbiased. But where did these rules come from?
In some ways, rules are the foundation of our field. As the profession was developing in Euro-America in the early 20th century, there was a tension between old, invasive restoration techniques and new, science-based conservation methods. In 1930, at the historic International Museums Office conference in Rome, professionals invested in conservation created practical recommendations, promised work on a conservation manual, and proposed creating training programs.
I don’t dispute the value of sharing ideas and educating new conservators, but I’d like to pause on the fact that what distinguished conservation from restoration was that professionals would now follow rules. Perhaps one reason we feel compelled to institute rules is because they are foundational to our professional identity. Professionalization of our field is directly tied to delineating procedures and instituting rules.
As we think about the history of conservation, some of these rules make sense. The focus on science distinguished conservation from restoration, so prioritizing neutrality follows. But overall, the rules stress the responsibility of individual conservators. Where did this individual focus come from? Part of the answer is living in a capitalist society, which emphasizes personal growth at the expense of collective well-being, which is too much to get into here. Wherever the idea stems, I propose moving from an individual mindset to collective thinking, one that prioritizes many voices in our entire process.
There are many ways to build collective power, and I’m going to focus on one theme of this blog: the definition of a conservator. By thinking outside of the current bounds of our profession, we can build a powerful force towards our goal of preservation. Conservators aren’t the only caretakers of heritage, and we can’t delineate the boundaries of conservation in a vacuum. What if we consider anyone who cares for heritage as a conservator? This is not an easy shift for our field. Our fear and insecurity manifests in our many rules around who is a conservator. The caretakers at the George Floyd Global Memorial call themselves conservators. By not bristling at their lack of training and instead embracing them and others into the profession, we find a way to exponentially increase our impact. This will lead to innovation and possibility, like we’re seeing at the Global Memorial, and to more preservation of what matters to communities today.
We are in a phase of transition, and these rules are changing. It was pointed out to me that in the adage “the exception proves the rule,” the word “proves” has an original definition of “tests.” Thus, “the exception tests the rule.” Perhaps we’re in the middle of testing the rules of conservation. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the American Institute for Conservation, it’s a good moment to reflect on these rules and reconfigure the boundaries of the profession.
Anisha Gupta (she/her) is a cultural heritage conservator. After practicing conservation in museums and libraries, she is pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Delaware to focus on making her own work more equitable and inclusive. Her research is centered on confronting the legacies of colonialism in collections care and expanding our practice to include global caretaking traditions that value communities and sustainability. Anisha is also co-chair of the American Institute of Conservation’s Equity & Inclusion Committee where she has spearheaded equity initiatives focused on systemic and cultural change.