JAIC 1980, Volume 19, Number 2, Article 1 (pp. 67 to 68)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1980, Volume 19, Number 2, Article 1 (pp. 67 to 68)


Robert E. Fieux

EDITORIALS DO NOT RISE like bubbles in the mind of the editor and then, set in cold type, drop like stones into the bottomless well of the Journal readership—as a telephone call and a letter which followed publication of our last issue remind us.

One of the co-authors of an article submitted and rejected for publication in the Journal has asked that the genesis of the editorial in the last issue be clarified. Phyllis Dillon, Conservator, Museum of the American Indian, and Dennis V. Piechota, an ethnographic conservator in private practice, sent in an essay dealing with the ethical issues underlying the treatment of anthropologic collections en masse. For various reasons, the editorial staff of the Journal decided not to publish it in its present form, but the Editor-in-Chief was stimulated by its content to consider the wider application and implication of issues that it discussed. She wrote the editorial that eventually appeared and prior to its publication showed it to one of the co-authors, who did not suggest that the specifics of its original inspiration should be included in the text. The other co-author feels differently, however, and we are glad to acknowledge that their contribution, which itself may eventually be published, was the germ of our essay.

Our editorial started another reader, Robert E. Fieux, a painting conservator in private practice, thinking about quite another aspect of conservation. He sent a long letter which, though originally in the form of a reply, is printed below with most of his specific references to the editorial deleted; for its subject is distinct and well-summarized as it stands, and we believe that it deserves consideration by the Journal readership as a separate topic.

In today's technological world there is a vast array of new materials available, all of which are now standard production items, which themselves are far superior to anything now in common use in conservation. The advantage to be gained by adopting high-technology materials in place of archaic traditional ones goes beyond the performance of the material itself. It releases the conservator from the restrictive bonds of narrowly limited treatment techniques, and makes possible different principles of operation, opening hitherto unavailable methods with a large number of options.

Nothing that exists in high-technological areas is accessible without commensurate financial investment. Further, availability cannot become a reality unless someone invests significant sums in search for, and the adaptation of high-technology materials for use by our field. So far, there have been virtually no programs of sustained research and development other than that provided by private individuals.

This brings us to the philosophical concepts upon which the Code of Ethics is founded. Ideals are fine, and without them, the most perfect intentions could founder. But actual practice finally comes down to reality, to the day-by-day expenditure of time and energy in the accomplishment of a task. For this there must be some kind of compensation.

This fundamental basis for obtaining anything worthwhile has not been given adequate consideration by AIC. The thought of service without reward, or of sharing without charge or compensation will never produce fruits.

AIC makes little or no acknowledgement to the individuals who have contributed the most in precisely that area specifically described in a recent Journal editorial as the most important, namely, the care of the greatest part of any collection, not a few individual works. This oversight even goes to the extent of permitting misunderstanding of some parts of the Code of Ethics to prevail, working further hardship upon voluntary contributors.

This misunderstanding involves what might be described as the degree of value of a shared contribution, and the circumstances of its origin. As in an industrial company, a worker in a museum who develops something new has done so on “company time” and expense. Most companies require a signed agreement that any such developments are company property. In such a case, the employee has signed away all proprietary rights to the company. The reward may be promotion, cash award, salary increase, or nothing, depending on company policy. Those companies with the most liberal award system usually receive the most suggestions. The most versatile minds also usually end up at the top.

Private individuals who devise things of value do not have the prospect of institutional assistance, nor any certainty of reward. What they have is a private piece of knowledge, which is “proprietary” to them, and which they own totally and absolutely; and their “right” is that nobody can force disclosure of this knowledge from them by any means whatever. Surreptitious acquisition of a proprietary property is unethical and even illegal. If they disclose the knowledge of their own free will, they forfeit their “proprietary rights.”

The only advantage private individuals can enjoy from the possession of a proprietary property is that they can use it exclusively for their own benefit. If such a property has been created through the investment of time, energy and money, and it has the potential of having great value to the individual or to others, it is then a significant personal and private asset to the originator.

The misunderstanding which prevails generally within AIC, and among the membership involves that part of the Code of Ethics which says that developers of new methods of treatment are obligated to disclose them to colleagues. However, in the same paragraph of the Code, it says that proprietary rights are to be respected. Here is the inconsistency; further, unless an individual has explicitly signed away proprietary rights to an employer, any such disclosure can only be considered voluntary, not obligatory. This is especially so if the proprietary property involves significant values.

There are two alternative approaches to dispelling this misunderstanding. The originator can patent the thing, if it is indeed patentable, in which case disclosure does not forfeit any rights. Otherwise, AIC should work out a policy of recognition and award in exchange for disclosure of valuable contributions. If this does not come about, either people will not go to the cost in time and money to accomplish the research and development required in a high-technology situation, or else they will patent and produce materials through private channels with consequent higher cost. As things stand now, this is precisely what is occurring, and as a result there has been virtually no technological progress in the field.

It is possible to function within the framework of the Code of Ethics only if there is a recognition of reality.

Therefore, I would add to your thoroughly deserving proposal for more voice the even more important need … more money. There is money available if the need can be defined and demonstrated. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and the reason why the wheel of conservation gets no grease is not because it is well oiled, but because it is not turning.

Copyright 1980 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works