spring 2014
doi: 10.18236/econs2.201401

Imperfect Conservation

Taking risks is something that we conservators seem to be averse to – I mean, more averse than are most professionals from other fields. And yet, I would say that taking risks is a core trait of our profession. Sure, we take as little risk as possible, but we do take risks. As is the case for many other professions, conservators are rarely 100% sure that a given treatment will be absolutely safe. In this regard, we compromise.

We make compromises in many other senses, too. In fact, we often know that our treatment of choice is not the best possible treatment. In most conservation treatments, things could have been done in a better way. Not because the conservator did anything wrong,  but rather because he or she consciously chose a given course of action, fully aware that better technical options existed: a more comprehensive set of analysis, a slower and more gentle cleaning technique, a better and costlier reinforcing material, etc. However, I would argue that, in a vast majority of cases, conservators make sensible and perfectly correct decisions when opting for the less-than-ideal option.
In real life, compromising is a must. Consider medicine: if a person goes to the doctor with the symptoms of a flu, it is unlikely that the doctor will request a blood test, or a germ culture, or whatever medical test is needed to determine as thoroughly as possible that those symptoms are actually caused by a flu. Or think of commercial airliners: the companies just do not do their absolute best to ensure that we fly safely. For example, not every single piece of every plane’s engine is carefully checked for integrity after each flight. There is no technical reason why both the dismantling of the engines and the medical tests could not be done, and it is undeniable that they could help to improve the diagnosis of the patient or increase the safety of the planes. And yet, it is a widespread (and eminently sound) practice to not do any of these things. These are good examples of how taking some chances may be sensible if the odds are favourable enough; from a broader perspective, they are also good examples of compromises that are reasonable and, in nearly every case, successful.
Obvious as it may seem, it may be opportune to remind ourselves that sensible compromising does make sense. Conservation does not always seek perfection, rather it seeks efficiency. It does not have to use the best technology available or to be completely risk-free, as it seeks to produce good results within a given set of circumstances. These circumstances include material factors, such as costs and available resources, as well as immaterial factors, such as the values conveyed by the object or the expectations of the target audience. The constraints imposed by reality may in fact be very complex, and even impossible to precisely assess. This is why we conservators feel it perfectly adequate to take some chances; this is why we seldom need hi-tech analysis; this is why we often opt for a good-enough treatment even though we know that a better treatment could be applied.

Most often, conservation succeeds through reasonable compromise. Most human activities do, in fact. After all, how many people could be attended by a doctor if every patient with a flu were subjected to a comprehensive set of medical tests? And how many people could actually fly if planes had to be thoroughly revised after each flight? Indeed, how many heritage objects would fall into oblivion if most of the resources assigned to conservation were spent in treating a few objects to the best of our abilities? At the end of the day, conservation is not that different from so many other activities: compromising is a must. And, as a consequence, the best possible option may not really be the best option

Dr. Salvador Muñoz Viñas
Professor of Heritage Conservation
Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain