Science and Heritage Programme

Cultural Encounters and Explorations: Conservation's "Catch-22"

Institute of Archaeology, University College London

Principal Investigator - Professor Liz Pye (UCL)
Co Investigators - Dean Sully (UCL), Professor Jonathan Ashley-Smith (Royal College of Art)


Conservation and collections care are deeply affected by pressures to provide greater access to heritage objects for people now, but at the same time to make sure that objects survive for future users. This highlights a paradox which could be called conservation’s “Catch-22”:

  • Access to heritage objects brings social benefit
  • Greater access brings greater social benefit  
  • Greater access brings greater damage
  • Greater damage brings reduced social benefit
Catch 22 basket

People interact with heritage objects in many ways: children are encouraged to handle objects to bring the past to life; museum visitors are eager to see ‘the real thing’, artists are inspired. Increasingly, encounters with objects are used as triggers for oral history, and are considered to have a restorative function in reconnecting people with their pasts (cultural wellbeing), or in reaching people who are isolated through age, health, social exclusion or sensory impairment (therapeutic wellbeing). However, we know relatively little about the nature of any benefit that may be derived from these encounters, nor do we know enough about the effect on the heritage objects themselves. This has limited our ability to establish effective conservation strategies.

The purpose of this research cluster, therefore, will be to explore the issues associated with physical encounters between people and objects. It will examine our understanding of changes to the physical object, our ability to define and measure condition, our conception of deterioration and loss, and the implications for current and future use of collections. This will be balanced by exploration of the social/cultural benefit gained from these encounters. A further purpose will be to explore the impact of remote encounters with digitised objects on the policy, practice and ethics of collections care and management. A key objective is that this research should guide future strategies for heritage conservation


Details of scheduled events:

Workshop 1 - Physical Encounters: What Do We Mean By Condition?

Led by Principal Investigator Elizabeth Pye (Monday 30 March 2009)

The first workshop established the concept of the heritage object, how this shapes our perception of change in physical condition, and affects our definitions of value and damage. It explored the nature of the physical object, the dematerialised (digital) object, surrogates and replicas.    It examined other concepts that impact on condition, considered the shifting views of acceptable and unacceptable condition and evaluated the extent to which conservation and museum policies and activities are governed by condition.   Click here for links to workshop materials.

Workshop 2 - Physical Encounters:  What do we Know About Damage and Loss?

Led by Co-Investigator Jonathan Ashley Smith (Thursday 30 April 2009)

The second workshop examined the physical factors that impact on condition, how physical change in objects relates to damage and loss. It focused on methods of access to the physical object and the effects of this interaction on the object itself. It explored techniques for recognition of early stages of change, assessing the rate of change, measurement of loss and assessment of the consequences of damage.  It evaluated the impact of current conservation policies and practice and encouraged reassessment of our precautions against and reactions to damage and loss in museum collections. Click here for links to workshop materials.

Workshop 3 - Physical Encounters: Increased Benefit or Increased Risk? 

Led by Co-Investigator Dean Sully (Tuesday 2 June 2009)

The third workshop considered whether the value of increased physical access to heritage objects is worth the perceived or actual risk to the long term conservation of collections. It reviewed our ability to assess the results of these encounters, and explored the implications for conservation strategies which focus on limiting physical damage. It evaluated the impact of increasing access through remote technologies, and the consequences of the dematerialisation of objects and collections for the value and use of the physical collections.  It examined the implications for future conservation policy and practice of pressures for increased access. For the workshop abstracts see the workshop page.

Conference - What's the Damage?

(Wednesday 23 September 2009)

The conference aimed to draw together the key findings from all workshops and discussions and define areas of future research. For the conference abstracts see the conference page.