D. Cull, Review of "Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation", e-conservation Journal 2, 2014, pp. 128-131
Available online 15 September 2014
doi: 10.18236/econs2.201415

Historical Perspectives on Preventive Conservation

By Daniel Cull


Sarah Staniforth

Publisher: Getty Conservation Institute
Publication Year: 2013
Pages: 426
ISBN-10: 1606061429
ISBN-13: 978-1606061428
Language: English
Price: $70, €60



Preventive restoration is also more imperative if not more necessary, than an extremely urgent
restoration, because it is intended precisely to avoid the latter.

(Brandi, p. 11)

This is the sixth volume in the “Readings in Conservation” series by the Getty Conservation Institute, the series began with Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage a timely contribution to the field, the series has proceeded through various conservation specialisms covering; Paintings, Photographs, Textiles, and Archaeological Sites, and now the sixth book covers Preventive Conservation. The book contains sixty-five texts, narrowed down from an initial selection of over a thousand possible texts in the editor’s original shortlist. I shall endeavour to give an overview of the types of texts included, to illustrate why this is a necessary addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in preventive conservation, and particularly those interested in teaching its historical development.

The book contains a vast array of well written informative texts, forming almost certainly the broadest single collection of readings on Preventive Conservation available in English; moreover it is beautifully illustrated with full page colour images throughout, including a full page engraving of a bookworm; a scary sight when flicking through the book! The texts are arranged by theme, and chronologically within each theme, allowing the reader to get a sense of the historical development of the field. One of the core narratives of the book is the attempt to show the circular nature of thinking about preventive conservation, and the ways in which current discourses surrounding sustainability are looking back to our pre-“professional” days for inspiration and ideas, to my mind this shows the beginnings of a level of maturity in our field. The core of the book is divided into nine sections, the first three could be considered background sections, namely: ‘Philosophies of Preventive Conservation’, ‘Keeping Things’, ‘Early Years of Conservation in Museums’, the following five sections could constitute what would today be known as the core work of the preventive conservator, specifically; ‘Relative Humidity and Temperature’, ‘Light’, ‘Pests’, ‘Pollution’ and ‘The Museum Environment and Risk Management’, while the final chapter quite sensibly focuses on looking at ‘Future Trends’.

The background section starts with ‘Philosophies of Preventive Conservation’, taking its lead from the first of the book series, situating Preventive Conservation within the theoretical conservation tradition, and includes seminal figures such as John Ruskin, William Morris, Cesare Brandi, and David Lowenthal. Interestingly Mariam Clavir is included introducing the concepts of intangible cultural heritage and significance; and hinting at the possibilities of a non-western (or non-Euro-centric) conservation tradition. In part 2, ‘Keeping Things’, we find eleven readings that consider traditions of saving and looking after objects; whether religious, artistic, or family heirlooms. Although this section goes on to show the development of cabinets of curiosities widely agreed to be the origin of the museum concept, the texts I found to be the most fascinating related to 18th century housekeeping practices, and traditional Indian techniques for protection from insects and mitigating the effects of climate. The final historical section is ‘Early Years of Conservation in Museums’, in which the book considers the role of Preventive Conservation in early museology. The editor admits that although the first official museum was founded in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, there is a dearth of literature until the mid-19th century concerned with Preventive Conservation in the museum environment. I was amused to read a line referring to “architects of eminence” (p.94) showing that starchitects have always been drawn to museums. It is clear to see in this section a growing appreciation, and need for knowledge of Preventive Conservation.

The next sections, and the bulk of the contents, broadly define what has become the core work of the Preventive Conservator; we are introduced to the agents of deterioration, and the growth of a scientific understanding of how and why objects change. In Part 4 there are ten texts that consider ‘Relative Humidity and Temperature’, one of which covers the famous, almost mythical, storage of objects from the National Gallery in Welsh caves during the Second World War. Deemed such a successful decision that the air-conditioning installed post war at the National Gallery was designed to try to simulate the conditions of the Manod Quarry! The book includes a few of those fabulous photographs of priceless art packed perilously on the back of old trucks. Part 4 concludes with the essential Applying Science to the Question of Museum Climate that illustrates the many reasons for historical inflexible guidelines and how greater scientific understanding has allowed more flexible guidelines to be adopted, ultimately improving the care of collections. “While entrenched thinking (or lack of it) has persisted, the new guidelines have gained wide acceptance” (p.177). Part 5, is a shorter section with only six texts discussing ‘Light’. The first by Brommelle summarizes the influential 1886 Russell and Abney Report that discussed the effects of light on watercolours, for a long time this report was difficult to find, although it is now available online [1] although unfortunately no links are cited in the book. The rest of the texts discuss a variety of aspects of light, and our increasing understanding of different types of light. Although a solid overview I could not help but think that this part of the book cut off chronologically too early and in so doing missed opportunities to consider more recent discussions in the field around micro-fading and/or the implications of LED lighting.

If preventive conservators have nemesis, in Part 6 we get to meet them: ‘Pests’, the section begins with extracts from servant instructions in insect prevention in the 18th and 19th century, as time goes on we see the introduction of highly toxic chemicals as scientists gain a foothold, and then we are introduced to the concept of Integrated Pest Management and methods of prevention as widely practiced in museums today. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of an extract from Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking environmental book ‘Silent Spring’, the inclusion of texts that are not from the profession, but have been highly influential, is exactly the contextualising function I believe a ‘reader in conservation’ should have. In the next part we move on to discussion ‘Pollution’; amusingly for a book written in LA all the texts discuss the smog of London. These discussions begin in 1661 with the publication ‘Fumifugium’, decrying the air quality created by burning coal, and suggesting a remedy of removing coal based industry and planting sweet smelling flowers. It’ll surprise no-one that this advice was ignored at the time. I was really pleased to see included Loftus St. George Byne’s article about the corrosion of shells at the British Museum, and article I’ve seen quoted and referenced numerous times but never had the opportunity to read before. It’s great to see such classics included as they truly add to the importance of this publication. The final part of this section considers the application of the knowledge developed so far in ‘The Museum Environment and Risk Management’. This part includes the Preface to both the first and second edition of Garry Thomson’s ‘The Museum Environment’, probably still most significant, how-to guide for preventive conservation. The choice to include the preface/s is important as they are often overlooked, although they form one of the most important sections of the book in that that they lay out the limitations of the information therein; “No one who reads this book will fail to end with a realisation of our general ignorance” (p.303), the failure to take heed of these words led to the book mistakenly being turned into unchallengeable rules to be strictly adhered to, a realisation that has been significant in recent discourse in the field.

The book concludes by considering ‘Future Trends’, and is packed with 12 texts covering economics, sustainability and management of change. The chapter begins with a set of predictions by Garry Thomson, editorially suggesting the prescient abilities of this great-man of the field; I’m more sceptical and would put forward the suggestion that many of the developments were made by people who took his words as challenges and goals to be achieved. I thought it was an excellent choice to include Kate Clark’s ‘Informed Conservation’ to stress the dynamic nature, and facilitated-use role, of conservation, I think this article really speaks to a future I would like to see in saying “Conservation is becoming increasingly positive and proactive, rather than negative and re-active.” (p.353). There follows a whole series of articles discussing various aspects of sustainability, and the final two texts are interesting in that one, by Roberto Nardi, develops the idea that conservation should take place in the public view, if the field wants public support, and the final paper is by the editor Sarah Staniforth and utilizing a writing style I really gel with that draws upon another field, in this case the slow food movement, as a source of inspiration. To my mind the major hole in, and ultimately the missed opportunity with, this final collection of writings is that there is nothing from outside the western academic/conservation canon, and although there was earlier in the book an indication of alternative ways of thinking about conservation with for example the inclusion of Lowenthal, Clavir, Itoh, and Agrawal, by failing to include similar thoughts in the future trends section these earlier texts take on the role of indicating missed opportunities and roads less travelled. I personally feel that it would have been great to include something written about sustainability from outside of the West, and my vote for essential text would have been something to do with the Malian idea of Culture Banks [2], truly bridging the idea of sustainable cultural and economic development and a great model for social utility of the conservation profession.  

Ultimately this book will I believe quite rightly become a classic in the preventive canon; with its vast array of texts and even more extensive additional readings bibliography. This book will likely become an essential reading for students and professional alike, and will likely garner significant interest in the lay public too. As Timothy P. Whalen notes in his Foreword; “In order to advance conservation practice, it is important that we understand previous practices and rationales, consider how they have evolved, and think critically about the challenges ahead”, this volume is a great step along such a road, and all concerned with its creation, especially its editor Sarah Staniforth, should be congratulated for their work.


[1] W. J. Russel and W. de. W. Abney, Report to the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education on the Action of Light on Water Colours, Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1888, http://dbooks.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/books/PDFs/305073120.pdf

[2] D. Keita, A. Yattara, B. Macalou, M. S. Sangaré, M. Coulibaly, R. Coulibaly, and S. Coulibaly, Guide de la Banque Culturelle: Basé sur les expériences au Mali, 2005, http://epa-prema.net/documents/ressources/guide_banque_culturelle.pdf

Daniel Cull
Preventive Conservator
Historic Royal Palaces
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Daniel Cull is interested in Preventive Conservation, Ethnographic Conservation, and Conservation Theory. Daniel has worked at institutions in the UK and USA, he currently supervises Preventive Conservation activities at Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, and Banqueting House, Whitehall. Daniel trained at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. He has served as a board member of e-conservation magazine and on the board of the Western Association for Art Conservation. His recent research interests have focused around Web 2.0, Wikipedia, and the ethical implications of the emerging social media landscape for conservators. He has also published on post-colonial ethics, Native American contemporary art, and collaborative or consultation-led conservation.