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What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

April 3rd, 2014

What’s it worth? How historical objects are viewed in our society

Melissa Price

old_shoeVase

Which is more valuable?

We see them everywhere behind glass in museums, in a dim room with a spotlight on them, a guard standing around telling you not to touch: historical objects and artifacts on display for our viewing pleasure. To a museum visitor, the objects may be nice to look at or learn about from the brief informational placards. To a conservator or archaeologist, the objects may be a key to unlocking information about our human past and need to be preserved for future study. Different people view historical objects in various ways, and sometimes this can cause problems, especially when objects are seen for their monetary value only.

To an archaeologist, the context of an object is just as important as the object itself. After all, one can only learn so much about a single ceramic pot. If that pot, however, is found within a burial an archaeologist can make interpretations about the culture that made the pot: ritualistic behaviors, societal hierarchies, and the function of the pot can all be gleaned from its context.

The general public is less likely to understand the importance of context. This is understandable since most of their interactions with historical objects occur when they are standing in front of a glass case in a museum. They see the object at the end of its journey: after it has been removed from the field and been cleaned, preserved, and placed on display. The public sees these objects as valuable: they know they are behind glass cases for a reason and that museums pay (sometimes large) amounts of money for certain objects. The very circumstances surrounding museums place value on the object alone, rather than historical context (especially since accompanying informational text is brief).

In line with this concept is the idea that mundane or common objects are less worthy of being studied, collected, or placed on display in museums, which creates a bias of what is seen behind glass cases, as Caple mentions in “Reasons for Preserving the Past” (2003, 21). Unique, famous, rare, or beautiful objects are prized over everyday objects and are sought after for their monetary value. They are also more likely to be displayed in a museum in the hopes of attracting more visitors.

One example of highly sought after objects are those classical artworks such as Greek or Roman marble statues and vases. The modern aesthetics of these types of objects is sometimes seen as more highly prized than the object’s original context. The objects, according to Sarah Scott in “Art and Archaeology,” are displayed “as art rather than archaeology” (2006, 629). This has caused, and is still causing, looting or damage to archaeological sites as people try to find and sell such objects (628). They know there is a market for them and market value is given more importance than contextual detail (629). Archaeologists should stress the importance of context lest looting occur. Placing a high value on objects can lead to the “continued prioritization of a select range of objects, most notably classical sculpture” (636). Our modern view of what is considered “art,” such as classical statues, causes them to be considered as commodities to be bought and sold, rather than ancient objects that can lend information about the past societies in which they existed.

In conclusion, keeping objects in their original context, rather than applying value and aesthetics to them, is ideal. Archaeologists and conservators alike have a responsibility to make the acquirement of objects without context unacceptable both academically and socially. For example, archaeologists can refuse to help treasure hunters or salvors with excavation. Similarly, conservators can refuse to work on objects that have been obtained through less desirable means. Museums must be very careful when buying objects and place an importance upon integrity of objects. Finally, placing significance upon the study of seemingly mundane or common objects also helps to decrease the mindset of historical objects as commodities. 

Photo credits

Vase: https://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/tools/pottery/painters/keypieces/redfigure/niobid.htm

Shoe: http://www.armenianow.com/features/25224/world_s_oldest_leather_shoe

 

References Cited

Caple, C. 2003. Chapter 2: Reasons for Preserving the Past. In: Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method and Decision Making, pp. 12-23.

Scott, Sarah. 2006. Art and the Archaeologist. World Archaeology 38(4): 628-643.

Ethics and Theory, General Conservation, Museum Studies, Public Outreach , , , , , , , , , ,

How visible should conservation treatments be?

February 12th, 2014

How visible should conservation treatments be?

 Lawrence Houston

Retaining and producing documentation of conservation treatments is considered a fairly recent development when it comes to historical and artistic works.  The prior philosophy of repairs was often to make them so invisible that the original and the repair could not be told apart.  It was thought that the slightest hint of visible treatment would ruin the value of an object and many objects were ill-treated in order to attain this visual effect.  When conservators worked together to develop treatment ethics, one of the aspects of ethical repair that was examined closely was how treatments should be incorporated into the object as a whole.  How can damage repair be undertaken in a manner that neither detracts from the perception of an object, nor attempts to pass itself off as authentic?

One guidepost that conservators set was the ‘six foot/six inch rule.’  Basically put, a repair should be incorporated into the object so that from 6 feet away, the repair blends seamlessly with the object.  The object and its aesthetic experience should be at the forefront of the observer’s attention.  Treatments should not detract from the appreciation of an object.  However, treatments should not be so invisible that the object becomes something that it is not.  Original detail and the work of time and craft should be distinguished readily from the restoration and stabilization work done to care for an object.  Hence the six inch rule, which states that treatments should be apparent on close examination.

Why make the treatments visible at all?  Conservators have the responsibility of ensuring that an object is allowed to speak for itself.  Hiding the treatments entirely creates a false appearance that can mislead or even create forgeries of authentic craft.  Those who access the objects treated have the right to know which parts of an object are original. Likewise, conservators have the obligation to show what is interpolation or which portions are not supported by authorial intent and are merely an assist to stabilization.  Conservators have developed techniques like tratteggio [Italian for sketching] and rigatini [striping] for adding paint to compensate for loss.  Other times, the ‘reading side’ of an object will not show work that is readily visible from the back.  When treatment documentation is lacking or absent, it is often these visual clues that are an important help to guide researchers and conservators in their approach to an object.

Figure 1

Page from a copy of Homer’s Iliad. 1722. 

Aqueous treatment was being contemplated to fix the staining of the page.  Repairs are almost invisible.

Figure 2

Note the undocumented repairs that are easily visible on close inspection.  Should aqueous treatment be attempted with this object, these historical repairs can be accounted for by the conservator and loss of the information can be prevented. These visible repairs are also of note to researchers.  In this case, the repairs indicate a printing error that was caught and likely corrected early in the object’s life. (Raking and transmitted light used in the photos provided to visually highlight the repairs).

Figure 3

Current AIC guidelines require conservators to “not falsely modify the known aesthetic, conceptual, and physical characteristics of the cultural property.”  As conservators we need to ensure that repairs stay in the background and do not drown out the voice of the object.  But we also need to avoid the vanity of creating a truly invisible repair and work to hone our craft in a way that allows the object to speak for itself.

 

Bibliography

AIC Code of Ethics.  http://www.nps.gov/training/tel/Guides/HPS1022_AIC_Code_of_Ethics.pdf.  January 21, 2014.

Applebaum, Barbara. Conservation Treatment Methodology. Lexington, ky 2010

Capel, Chris. Conservation Skills: Judgment, Method, and Decision Making. Routledge. ny, ny. 2000

Phillips, David. Exhibiting Authenticity. St Martin’s Press. NY, NY. 1997

Schweidler, Max.  The Restoration of Engravings, Drawings, Books, and Other Works on Paper.  Ed. Roy

Perkinson.  Getty Conservation Institute. Los Angeles. 2006.

Photo credit: Lawrence Houston.  Images from ΟΜΗΡΟΥ ΙΛΙΑΣ. Homeri Ilias: id est, de rebus ad Trojam gestis. Printer J. R. Prostant. 1722.

General Conservation, Science , , ,

The Conservation of Heavily Visited Cultural Heritage Sites

February 14th, 2013

The Conservation of Heavily Visited Cultural Heritage Sites

Lucas Simonds

             While visiting the site of Butrint in Albania over the summer, I was disappointed to discover that one of its most stunning features, a mosaic pavement on the floor of a Byzantine period baptistery, was being kept out of sight due to conservation concerns. Like many heavily visited sites, the baptistery pavement would be prone to the wear and tear of thousands of tourist’s feet, and for the sake of preservation, the Butrint management had resorted to the rather inelegant solution of covering over the mosaic with sand. While I was upset at the thought of only seeing the mosaic through a faded picture on a nearby sign, I was reminded also of the ever present danger to such works of art, as a young couple jumped over the fence surrounding the mosaic area to have their picture taken among the columns of the baptistery.

At Butrint, as at many other heavily visited cultural heritage sites, conservators have to walk the fine line between preserving cultural heritage and displaying it to the public, for whom it is being preserved. In situations such as this it is difficult to devise a single best practice, as each site has not only different deterioration factors, but different amounts of funding available for preservation work. While the sand covering the mosaic at Butrint certainly serves as a functional barrier to the effects of trampling tourists, sites with more available funding are able to employ more labor intensive methods. At the Lascaux caves in France for instance, where carbon dioxide produced by visitors had begun to degrade the cave paintings within ten years of their opening to the public, a replica of the original caves has been made nearby to allow tourists to experience the cultural heritage without damaging the fragile original work (Dupont et al. 2007, 526). Similarly, at Pompeii in Italy the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great has been removed to the museum in nearby Naples, and replaced by an exact replica on-site. These replica solutions allow for greater access to cultural heritage by tourists while also protecting them from both those, like the couple I saw in Pompeii, who ignore barriers and trample over ancient floors without a thought, and from the inadvertent damage caused merely by the presence of tourists, such as the situation in the Lascaux caves. Although this is an effective method for both presenting and preserving cultural heritage to the general public, it also removes the key element of genuineness from the experience. While the lack of genuineness may not be a concern of the average tourist, I personally felt its absence when viewing the Alexander mosaic, and I am sure informed visitors to most sites would have a similar experience.  

            Unfortunately, authenticity is only one of the many factors which weave into the complex web of the conservation of cultural heritage on heavily trafficked sites. While the experience of the visitor must be taken into account, as it is for them that our heritage is being preserved, the preservation of the object has to take precedence, as without that, the site would not be worth visiting. Yet, as mentioned, the replacement of fragile artifacts with replicas only serves to lessen the experience for a large portion of the visitors. Even worse, however, are the simple solutions, such as that employed at Butrint, which eliminate any sort of personal encounter with cultural heritage, and are bad for all types of visitors. What then, should be done to preserve cultural heritage, while also allowing it to be viewed by as many as is reasonable?

            In an article on the conservation of rock art, Janette Deacon stresses both the complex nature of conservation on heavily visited sites, and the need for detailed management plans for such sites, which encompass all of the intricacies involved. This would include assessments of the advisable visitor capacities for each area of the sites, as well as considerations of more natural deterioration factors. More importantly, however, she advises the use of tour guides to prevent the many sorts of damage that can result from tourists interacting with the site (Deacon, 2006). While this may again cut into the enjoyableness of the experience; I certainly would have found a guide at Pompeii to be a damper to my exploration; the fact remains that staff on the ground near sensitive areas will the most effective control of visitors in that area by far. Signs can be ignored and barriers can be jumped, but an employee will be able to stop any reasonable visitor from doing something that they should not.

            As mentioned, the preservation of cultural heritage in highly visited sites is far from being a straightforward or simple issue. Natural deterioration factors such as weathering must be taken into account, and sometimes the only solution may be to remove an object, such as a mosaic, to a more controlled environment. Whenever possible, however, I believe it would be best to leave original objects on site. Of course this still exposes our heritage to the damage, both intentional and unintentional, caused by tourists, but strategic placement of staff or mandatory tour guides, can stop any reasonable visitor from touching things they shouldn’t. While this may be a more expensive solution, the fact that it can allow for genuine artifacts to remain on site makes it worthwhile when possible.

 

Deacon, Janette. 2006. Rock Art Conservation and Tourism. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13(4): 379-399.

Dupont, Joelle, Claire Jacquet, Bruno Dennetiere, Sandrine Lacoste, Faisl Bousta, Genevieve Orial, Corinne Cruaud, Arnaud Couloux, and Marie-France Roquebert. 2007. Invasion of the French Paleolithic Painted Cave of Lascaux by Members of the Fusarium solani Species Complex. Mycologia 99(4): 526-533.

Ethics and Theory ,

When Conservation is not the Answer

January 28th, 2013

When Conservation is not the Answer

Lucas Simonds

Although any reasonably pragmatic conservator accepts that, due to many considerations, the conservation of material culture is not feasible in every situation; Time, cost, level of deterioration, and other factors can often combine to make conservation efforts impractical. It is generally accepted that material culture and cultural heritage are intrinsically valuable, and should be preserved whenever possible. As an archaeologist, I would have to, in most situations, agree with this sentiment, as the profession of archaeology is based on the notion that cultural heritage holds an intrinsic value. This assumption of value, however, ignores the fact that the culture whose heritage is being preserved may in fact place a higher value on factors other than the preservation of cultural heritage. Competing viewpoints on value are especially likely to come to a head on the issue of the preservation and use of landscapes which contain cultural heritage. Be it a shipwreck in the middle of a highly fished area or a prehistoric settlement under a cornfield, the reality is the same that to people in the present day, their profitable relationship to the landscape is likely to hold a higher value than the archaeologist’s preservation oriented relationship.

This complex interplay of relationships has been dealt with at length in a recent article by Chris Dalglish, in which he argues in favor of what he calls “landscape justice.” To Dalglish, landscape justice is a theoretical framework in which all relationships to a landscape, past, present, and future, must to be taken into consideration alongside the preservation of cultural heritage for its intrinsic value, so that good relationships to the landscape can be promoted (Dalglish 2012). Furthermore, Dalglish proposes that rather than possessing any sort of intrinsic value, material cultural remains draw their value not from within themselves, but from groups living in the present who believe that those remains reflects their cultural heritage (Dalglish 2012, 335). As a result of this, Dalglish comes to a number of conclusions that would be somewhat shocking to most archaeologists and conservators, the most blunt of which is found in his third principles of  archaeological landscape ethics, which states,

Adopting an approach that connects the past, present and future tenses of the relational

landscape requires us to move away from a position where conservation actions are our

stock response to any situation. Conservation of the status quo, its relationships and its

material elements, is an option which remains open to us, but it is only one of many

possibilities (Dalglish 2012, 338).

While suggesting that complete preservation may, at times, be the wrong choice comes as an offense to the sensibilities of those of us who work in the preservation of cultural heritage, I believe Dalglish’s theory of landscape justice exposes an inherent narrow-mindedness in our profession. Despite the value which we place on cultural heritage, our relationship to the landscape in which material cultural remains lie is not the only one that matters. Those who draw their livelihood from the landscape or reap other benefits from it must have a say in the management plans of that landscape, as their relationships to it are no less legitimate than those of archaeologists and conservators.

A word of caution must be given, however, as this is not meant to suggest that the potential of a landscape to produce a profit must take precedence over its cultural significance. This is meant to suggest though, that the prioritization of conservation in every situation without regard to other relationships to the landscape is not only unjust, but leads, more often than not, to a poor relationship between the archaeological community and the public, as well as to the possible mismanagement of landscapes. I would suggest, therefore, that Dalglishs’ theory of landscape justice be given careful consideration as plans for landscape management and conservation are developed, and that both archaeologists and conservators should attempt to take a more open minded view when dealing with the complex interplay of relationships surrounding landscapes containing cultural heritage.

 

Dalglish, Chris. 2012. Archaeology and landscape ethics. World Archaeology 44 (3): 327-341.

 

Archaeological Conservation, Ethics and Theory , , , , , ,