CONSERVATION SURVEYS: ETHICAL ISSUES AND STANDARDS
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.