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Wednesday, May 31 • 2:05pm - 2:30pm
(Beyond Treatment) What's so ethical about doing nothing?

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This conference is a celebration of the importance of treatment and of the necessary intellectual preparation for action. In the description of the conference theme the ‘no treatment at all' option is referred to as ‘the ultimate decision'. Yet there seems to be a growing trend within the conservation profession for ‘no treatment at all' to be considered the one and only ethical choice.

There are several reasons for this trend. One of the causes concerns social and academic attitudes to working with the hands. The academic professionalization of conservation can aggravate the prejudice that intellectual skills are more desirable and laudable than manual dexterity. Most conservation treatments demand both types of skill in equal measure. Yet if time is not allowed in school and college for the development of manual ability, practical intervention tasks will not be carried out with the necessary speed and skill. This may lead to mistakes and irreversible damage to artifacts. This leads to a process of ethical drift where certain treatments are deemed unethical rather than just difficult, downright wrong rather than requiring skill and experience.

College conservation courses fill their curricula with more and more non-practical content. Specialist conservators in large institutions fill their time with administration and with short-term activities such as loans, ostensibly to reduce immediate risk. They engage with storage projects with long-term aims of preservation and risk reduction. Conservators in smaller museums cannot hope to specialize. This leads to the development of members of the conservation profession who have not learned, and do not desire, to carry out interventive treatments.

Arguments that preventive conservation is more economical and less risky than intervention seem to generate unwarranted attitudes of moral superiority that can fuel the ethical drift. This drift means that treatment options that were considered perfectly allowable become at first questionable and then unethical. This is excused as the necessary progress of a developing profession. In extreme cases the supremacy of the ‘no treatment at all 'policy could be construed as ‘depraved indifference' to the aesthetic and educational potential of individual objects.

There is a concurrent trend in the wording of codes of conduct and ethics that no longer include explicit guidance about practical intervention. The limits of intervention are blurred, yet conservators continue to act as though they were following unequivocal and universally acknowledged guidelines. Sensible elegant solutions to problems are deemed to be both sensible and elegant but ‘not what a conservator would do'.

This presentation will provide evidence of this trend and discuss the limits of arguments about the safety and economy of doing nothing. A process will be proposed that will promote discussion of the full range of options and allow the construction of explicit policies for interventive treatments. These will be locally determined and locally relevant. Any national or international body attempting to regulate conservation practice need only insist that this policy has been discussed, locally approved and made universally accessible.

avatar for Jonathan Ashley-Smith

Jonathan Ashley-Smith

Head of Conservation (Retired), Victoria and Albert Museum
Jonathan trained in chemistry to post-doctoral level, worked as a metalwork conservation apprentice and then, from 1977 to 2002, was Head of the Conservation Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The book ' Risk Assessment for Object Conservation', now sorely in need... Read More →

Wednesday May 31, 2017 2:05pm - 2:30pm
Regency A-B Ballroom Level, West Tower

Attendees (362)