CONSERVATION SURVEYS: ETHICAL ISSUES AND STANDARDS
ABSTRACT—This paper invites discussion regarding the ethical issues and practical concerns surrounding the current and future provision of conservation assessment surveys. The development of general survey practice is examined, and the history of related funding programs is reviewed. Current problems, as noted by practitioners in the field, are discussed.
The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works is currently revising its Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice. This effort creates an opportunity to consider the inclusion of guidelines relating to conservation assessment surveys. This paper raises for consideration some of the issues bearing on ethical and practical concerns surrounding the provision of conservation assessment surveys. It is based on informal discussions with colleagues actively working as assessors and surveyors as well as on the author's experience as an assessor and an Institute of Museum Services (IMS) field reviewer.
Currently, the AIC Code of Ethics offers conservators little guidance relative to conducting conservation assessment surveys. The words “assessment” and “survey” do not appear in its text. This apparent oversight may be historically understood in light of the developing chronology of conservation assessment surveys.
The first formulation of a code of ethics for art conservators (Keck et al. 1967) was adopted by the members of the International Institute for Conservation–American Group (now AIC) at its annual meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, in 1967. This code was predated by the well-known Murray Pease report (Pease 1962), an initial guideline for standards of practice, published several years earlier. These documents from the mid-1960s form the basis of our current Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, as redrafted and adopted in 1979 (AIC 1993). Although a review of museum literature from the 1950s and 1960s verifies that pioneering conservators were publishing articles about the museum climate and approaches to survey methodology (Buck 1951; Werner 1957; Plenderleith and Phillippot 1960; Feller 1964; Stolow 1966), concern for these more general and overriding issues were not reflected in the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice. This document is primarily oriented to guiding the study and treatment of individual objects or materials.
At the time the code was written, conservators had been identified as specialists in museums, concerned mainly with the study and treatment of collections. Surveys were generally collection based and usually yielded prioritized lists of objects needing treatment. However, these reports often included brief discussion about environmental cause and effect, including recommendations to improve conditions and mitigate against further deterioration.
In the early 1980s the U. S. Congress requested a study to determine the nation's ability to care for its collections that would provide a statistically valid basis for future funding of this aspect of museum programs. In response, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum Services jointly funded a study that was carried out by the American Association of Museums in 1984–85, with assistance from the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (NIC) and the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. More than a dozen of AIC's most prominent members served as advisers. The study, Collections Management, Maintenance, and Conservation, was a comprehensive survey composed of six discrete initiatives that examined collections care issues. Two of the projects were national surveys of museums and of conservation professionals and facilities. Conservation training, support, and funding were also examined.
As summarized by Slate (1985), the national museum survey revealed that 34% of the respondents had condition records for less than half of their collections, and an additional 30% had none. Of the more than 133 million objects reported in the survey, the condition of 40% of collections was reported to be “unknown.” It is also worth noting that, in the “Conservation Professionals Questionnaire” portion of the study, the majority of directors of conservation laboratories who responded ranked “environmental control” as the area in which a greater voice for conservation was most needed in their institutions.
These and other responses demonstrated a pressing need to develop support for conservation as a national museum priority. As a result, the IMS developed specific funding for conservation through the creation of the IMS Conservation Support Program (IMS-CP), begun in 1984. In 1987 the IMS shifted the funding emphasis within the program, targeting general conservation surveys of collections and environment as its primary funding priority for most types of collections (Ullberg 1992). While museums could previously apply to the program for surveys of collections, this initiative required a focus on overall assessments of collections and the collections environment.
Though the need for conservation assessments had been made evident, the methodology for addressing the need was much less clearly defined. As museums sought funds to implement survey recommendations, the need for the conservation profession to develop a standard conservation assessment methodology became apparent to grant reviewers and practitioners alike. Inconsistencies in the approach among consulting conservators were found to obscure the issues and create confusion regarding similarities and differences among museums. This lack of comparability and clarity made it difficult for granting agencies to determine funding priorities.
To address these problems, NIC and the Getty Conservation Institute engaged in a cooperative undertaking known as the Conservation Survey Project. Working with a broad-based advisory group of representatives from the American Association of Museums, the AIC, the Association for Preservation Technology, and the Association of Systematics Collections, NIC developed the Conservation Assessment Program (CAP), the first nationally Administered, standardized approach to general conservation assessments for museum collections and historic structures. The first draft of previsit questionnaires and assessment guidelines (NIC 1989) was presented for discussion at the preconference session of the AIC annual meeting in 1989, and the program was instituted the following year.
In 1993 all of the elements in the outline of the CAP survey format have been adopted in the IMS Conservation Project Support grant application guidelines (IMS 1992) as defining a general conservation survey. This suggests that we have, de facto, the “standards of practice” for conservation assessment surveyors. In fact, many conservators have already adopted this outline and format as a standard for surveys and assessments that are underwritten by other granting agencies or contracted directly, because the issues are thoroughly and logically presented.
Nineteen ninety-three was the third year of survey projects funded by CAP and the ninth year of IMS-CP, and both programs have proven very successful. Conservation professionals who are participating in these and other programs have improved our understanding of the process as well as our abilities to provide these services. The benefits to the museum community can be seen in the clarity of long-range planning and informed design reflected in current implementation projects. But this experience has also identified ethical and practical issues for discussion: If conservators agree that the IMS/NIC format that we have helped to develop provides the “standards of practice,” are those projects that do not follow this outline failing to meet an accepted standard? If language is drafted for inclusion in the revised AIC standards that defines assessments according to the CAP model, can it be broad and simple enough to be both inclusive now and flexible in the future? Furthermore, after defining general assessments, is there a need to codify methodology for object condition surveys and environmental studies?
Some conservators and other museum professionals believe that the current format asks the conservator to cover too many issues or to reach beyond his or her expertise. When a conservation assessor begins redrafting mission statements, redefining organizational structure, advising on fund raising, or recommending programmatic shifts that draw resources from outreach or educational programs to support collections projects, they may well be operating beyond the limits of their professional training or experience.
Some assessors express frustration with the limited financial support provided for the CAP survey. They are torn between delivering the (necessarily) shorter report that current funding actually provides for and the longer and more instructive report that they believe these smaller, less sophisticated museums need, although to do so may require many hours of work without compensation.
A second and related area of concern arises in regard to contracts. Again, a de facto standard has been developed as part of simplifying the administration of CAP (Peters 1992). One suggestion to improve on this model would be the provision for follow-up after delivery of the report—one month, six months, or possibly another period—to help smaller museums in implementation, answer questions, provide feedback for assessors, and renew the drive of volunteers to follow through. Should these steps also be contracted obligations? Perhaps practitioners could work with program sponsors on these and other questions.
The issue that draws the most vociferous discussion among conservation practitioners concerns assessor qualifications. Currently, the NIC has identified 177 CAP surveyors. Qualification requires (1) previous general survey experience; (2) evidence of conservation or preservation training; and (3) a minimum of five years in the field (Peters 1992). CAP provides applicants with program information, including guidelines for selecting an assessor and a list of possible assessors. For each project, both applicants and assessors are charged with determining the suitability of their match.
Of necessity, the process of conservation assessment is largely learned through experience. While the academic training provided by formal conservation programs is intensive and focused on fundamentals necessary for success in the field, most assessors agree that a broad range of exposure beyond training is necessary to provide meaningful assessments.
To be effective, an assessment must consider the broadest issues of museum operations that affect collections preservation. The assessor must be able to view collections care in perspective, as one museum program within the context of the whole range of institutional programs and initiatives. Surveyors are called to draw upon experience developed over years of practice that have included exposure to institutional decision making outside and beyond the bench treatments of front-line conservation. In addition to the sharp observation and analytical abilities necessary to discern cause-and-effect diagnosis, surveyors require a deeper understanding of the environmental interplay leading to object deterioration as well as knowledge of geographically and architecturally appropriate possibilities for specific improvement. Add to this the necessary political acumen to discern underlying problems when collections care program failures have more to do with office politics than museum policy as well as the communicative skills needed to field questions while examining objects and their surrounding conditions and to gently teach, and sometimes motivate, staff and volunteers. And, of course, there is a need to document site visits simultaneously with notes and photographs. The museum staff is counting on the assessor to provide guidance that will inform their immediate actions as well as their long-range plans and reports that will explain, prioritize, and support fund-raising efforts to effect improvements.
The problem is this: program sponsors and assessors have left the final judgment regarding the quality of the reports to the museums seeking guidance, and in cases where these museums are staffed by minimally trained paraprofessionals or community volunteers, they are unfortunately sometimes the least qualified of all those involved to make these judgments. Furthermore, because the findings of the assessment are an essential measure in determining subsequent funding support for implementation projects in a highly competitive process, poorly served institutions find themselves at a disadvantage. The failure of an implementation grant to be funded may be the first occasion for an institution to realize the shortcomings of its assessment documents.
And so it becomes a matter of ethics for each assessor to examine his or her own qualifications: Are you working beyond your expertise? Many assessors plainly assert that one should not do assessments if not qualified. Here at last there is language in the current Code of Ethics(AIC 1993) that applies: “It is the conservator's responsibility to undertake … work only within the limits of his professional competence.” Further, surveyors are well advised to summarize their initial findings and refer clients to other practitioners with specific expertise as needed. “No person … can expect to be expertly informed on all [matters],” and there “should be no hesitation in seeking advice … or in referring [clients to other professionals] more experienced in particular special problems.”
A second area of potential ethical dilemmas involves the goals and purposes that motivate conservators to provide assessments. Assessors who use surveys for self-promotion, to market their own treatment services, may be on ethically thin ice. If the client's real needs for better storage methods or improvements to mechanical systems are bypassed on priority lists in favor of revenue-generating treatment projects, the conflict seems quite clear. This situation seems ironic considering that the identification of objects needing treatment was one of the conservators' and museums' original purposes for surveys. Does the assessment program goal create a conflict of interest for conservators in this regard when considered in light of the expectation that a benefit of assessments will be the development of long-term relationships between institutions and contract conservators? Perhaps the current Code of Ethics discussion draft (AIC Ethics and Standards Committee 1993) should include surveys and assessments on the list of activities that provide considerable potential for conflict of interest.
Overall, CAP reports and general assessments have proven to be extremely valuable documents for planning and action. But the shortcomings of a minority of reports illustrate additional issues regarding ethical and responsible performance. Most institutions, especially the smaller ones targeted by CAP, need clear, concise recommendations to be able to use survey reports in developing large-scale programs with additional outside consultants. Assessors must describe short-term, intermediate, and long-term needs and prioritize recommendations for action. They should support their findings with the evidence collected during fieldwork and defend their opinions with a clear rationale. Disclaimers for ensuing recommendations may undermine client confidence and sidetrack implementation efforts. Timely follow-through by assessors is also needed; reports submitted a year after the site survey fail to capitalize on the program's potential momentum.
There are other potential shortcomings inherent in vague contractual language that sets up expectations for information that the assessor knows cannot be developed within the scope of a specific project. The client may learn at the end of the project that, in fact, an additional contract and additional fees will be required to actually deliver what has been implicitly promised.
Further, the practice of delivering boilerplate reports, with generic text about generic problems, is something most colleagues have condemned. While some of the issues addressed in assessments may need general explanation that instructs the reader, reports must be site specific for their users to really benefit. Similarly, to cite textbook environmental standards for the care of a particular collection or objects and then leave the practical aspects of implementation to others may not fulfill the conservator's responsibilities as a participant in collections care.
Addressing these issues must involve practicing assessors as well as assessment program sponsors. Two areas clearly suggest themselves for consideration: assessor training and program review.
For reasons that should be evident, assessment is a discipline that does not readily lend itself to classroom training. One proposal that may provide useful experience is to teach current and future assessors by providing apprenticeships with qualified senior assessors. Another approach worth considering is the development of mentoring relationships for conservation assessors with senior professionals and client institutions. For example, CAP has paired many conservators with architects and preservationists in a collaboration that has proven beneficial for everyone. Perhaps there is a potential for collaborative projects that pair conservators with senior curators, museum administrators, or other allied professionals as a mentoring team for small institutions, providing similar rewards.
Finally, it may be time now or in the near future for a broad review of the Conservation Assessment Program that reconvenes the advisory group instrumental in its design, the program's administrators and sponsors, and representative conservators who provide assessments. Goals for this review might include developing a mechanism that provides regular feedback for assessors, further clarifying program expectations, or identifying assessors who are working below current standards for the purpose of providing them with needed assistance. It may also be useful to institute a cycle of periodic review.
As our experiences continue to shape and define our current practices, an open dialogue among field practitioners is necessary to support the evolution of consensus regarding ethical and practical standards. The current development of revisions to the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice provides an excellent opportunity to consider these questions. Conservators should take the opportunity, the initiative, and the responsibility for determining the professional standards and ethical principles that shape this field of endeavor. This is what the agencies that sponsor and support the assessment programs and similar initiatives expect, and it is what the institutions who seek the guidance, critical analysis, and recommendations of conservators deserve.
The author would like to acknowledge the help of his many colleagues and friends who offered their insights and opinions in support of this paper.
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KORY BERRETT received his bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Utah in 1974. He established a private practice in objects conservation in 1990 and has been an active Conservation Assessment Program assessor and surveyor for the past six years. Berrett was objects conservator for the Winterthur Museum and taught objects conservation for eight years as an adjunct faculty member of the University of Delaware/Winterhur Art Conservation Program. He was apprentice trained at Mario's Conservation Services and received a certificate in objects conservation from the Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, in 1980. Address: 3054 Reisler Rd., Oxford, Pa. 19363.