Preventive conservation: global trends

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Amparo R. de Torres

Article contents:
National efforts
Training programmes
International assistance programmes
Professional meetings
Information network

"Preventive conservation involves not only the control of the environment but also the proper mounting and housing of objects and collections; the development of policies, procedures and guidelines to protect the collections in storage and during use; conservation awareness, education and training; and, co-operative projects. Preventive conservation activities should be conducted in concert with the activities of the institution, involving the participation of the entire institution staff. A holistic conservation plan should be based on the real mission of the institution, and through an assessment of the needs and priorities of present and future collections."[1] Carolyn L. Rose.

There is a wide spectrum of preservation/conservation activities included in 'collections care'. These activities can be grouped in two main categories:

  1. Preventive conservation: non- treatment, non-interventive activities, and
  2. Conservation: treatment, interventive activities.

The activities associated with preventive conservation include: the assessment of the conservation status and needs of a collection, environmental monitoring, and control of storage and exhibition areas, the design and implementation of an emergency-preparedness plan, good housekeeping, integrated pest management, proper housing, containerisation, and appropriate storage facilities. Conservation activities include: stabilising and properly supporting objects, establishing guidelines for selection for preservation, and increased levels of treatment intervention ranging from minor repairs to full treatment (restoration) of individual items.

Many national and international institutions and organisations are shifting the direction of their collections' cure approach. They are moving away from the reactive approach, whereby efforts were concentrated on giving the full conservation treatment to those objects that were greatly damaged or had badly deteriorated. The newest trend is to adopt the more comprehensive and pro­active approach of preventive conservation, which is to prevent "harm to an object and associated data before it occurs".[2]

This new worldwide trend can be seen in institutions that are the custodians of collections as well as in organisations that promote awareness and training in conservation and preservation of collections. One of the reasons for this new trend is the realisation that even the wealthiest of institutions would require millions of dollars and a veritable army of conservators to provide individualised attention to each item in the collection. The truth is that most everyone has to confront shrinking budgets and restrictions that make it imperative to carefully plan how to spend the preservation budget. The preventive conservation approach does not rule out the full treatment for certain objects. It provides a greater number of preservation options to the collections as a whole, leaving the full treatment as the final and most elaborate option.

National efforts

Worthy of special mention here is the 'Delta Plan' of The Netherlands. This is the first time a country has adopted the preventive conservation approach as a matter of national policy. In 1991, The Netherlands established the Delta Plan to dramatically improve the condition of the cultural patrimony of the country. The goal of the first phase (1991-94) was to conduct an assessment and inventory, stabilise and properly house all the collections including libraries and archives. A great deal of money was invested to train volunteers — such as high school, college students, and retired people — who under the supervision of trained professionals, completed the registration and inventory, conducted the conservation assessments and other preventive conservation tasks. The full treatment or active conservation end of the spectrum (restoration of objects) was not included in the Delta Plan. In the future, and if sufficiently justified, money and time will be allotted to perform single item treatment of the important objects.[3]

In 1994, the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), the professional association of conservators in the United States, revised and approved by a majority vote of the members the 'Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice'. The new code of ethics states in paragraph VIII: "The conservation professional shall recognise a responsibility for preventive conservation by endeavouring to limit damage or deterioration to cultural property, providing guidelines for continuing use and care, recommending appropriate environmental conditions for storage and exhibition, and encouraging proper procedures for handling, packing and transport."[4]

In 1995, the AIC formed the 'Collections Care Professionals Task Force' to develop a standardised curriculum to train people in the conservation activities that are grouped in the preventive conservation end of the spectrum. This training will be less expensive and will require a shorter period of time to complete. This approach will enable institutions to have properly trained staff that can perform important and essential tasks to prolong the life of the entire collection.

Training programmes

In Brazil, for example, the two-year training curriculum for conservators at the Centre for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Movable Property (CECOR), at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, offers a preventive conservation class. At the end of the course, the students do a practicum in which they apply the theory learned to a real life situation. They go as a group to an institution to do an assessment of the collections and develop and implement a project that will benefit the institution, such as improving the storage conditions, rehousing of objects, teaching the caretakers how to start an environmental control or pest management programme.[5]

Something similar is done at the University of Durham in England. The students become involved in planning and carrying out projects that include many preventive conservation activities. They must assume the role of a working conservator talking to the curators, deciding on supplies, etc. These 'hands-on' learning opportunities help them acquire skills and qualities important when dealing with other professionals within the institution, such as confidence, political skills, motivation and patience, and judgement.[6]

In Colombia, South America, the National Restoration Centre (Centro Nacional de Restauración — CNR) has a Preventive Conservation Division with a multidisciplinary team of professionals. In addition to their academic responsibilities, through an outreach programme they conduct regional one-week courses for museum collections caretakers.[7] Recently, the National Archives of Colombia (Archivo General de la Nación), in collaboration with CNR, organised a series of preventive conservation training workshops for all the regional archives of the country.[8]

International assistance programmes

The International Centre for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome, has promoted the preventive conservation approach throughout the world for several decades. ICCROM was founded in 1959 by UNESCO and it is concerned with all aspects of conservation of 'cultural property'. One of its principal tasks is conservation training. During the past five years it has worked in Africa in the PREMA project — Preserving Museums in Africa. In 1992, ICCROM initiated the same type of project for Oceania: the PREMO Project.[9]

In Latin America, the ICCROM planted the seeds of conservation by participating in the creation of the national conservation centres in several countries. In addition, it has offered preventive conservation training courses. For example, the National Conservation Centre in Chile, South America, in co-operation with ICCROM, initiated in 1991 a programme to train individuals on how to conduct conservation assessments of collections and how to monitor and control the environment of museums, libraries and archives. Trainees were selected from different regions on the understanding that they would be willing and capable of serving as 'multipliers'. These 'multipliers' were trained to teach the techniques they learned to other people in their own region, and to train to become other 'multipliers'. Today Chile has a number of people who have formed a network of colleagues trained in preventive conservation who can help each other, in addition to having completed a comprehensive conservation assessment in most regions of the country.[10]

The Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), of Marina del Rey, California, a private, not for profit institution under the umbrella of the J. Paul Getty Trust, has several times offered a preventive conservation course in the United States and England. In November 1995, the course was offered in Spanish for the first time in Oaxaca, Mexico. The participants are conservators and scientists who are responsible for collections in museums, libraries and archives, and/or national conservation centres. The course objectives are to update these Professionals on the concept of preventive conservation, and the different technical, organisational and administrative key factors in the implementation of a preventive conservation programme.[11]

Professional meetings

Several initiatives and conferences related to preventive conservation have taken place in Latin America, such as the Building Partnerships/Protecting Patrimony Workshop, sponsored by the Fulbright Program and the Smithsonian Institution's Office of Museum Programs, held during the summer of 1991. This project included visits by a number of North American conservators to museums in six Central American countries and culminated in a preventive conservation training workshop in Costa Rica. In 1993, the Fulbright Program sponsored a course on preventive conservation, in collaboration with the National Park Service and the Library of Congress, entitled New conservation strategies: problem solving for historic and cultural institutions. This course took place in Guatemala on 25th-29th January 1993, and was attended by 36 Central American professionals.

In October 1992, the Association des Restaurateurs d'Art et Archéologie de Formation Universitaire of France (ARAAFU) held the first international meeting on 'Preventive Conservation'.[12] Its main objective was to discuss in an international forum the 'definitions of this new discipline', the parameters and implications of this approach for the care of cultural patrimony. Conservation professionals from all over the world gathered for the first time to share experiences and ideas on this emerging field.

In 1993, the GCI sponsored, in collaboration with the Conservation Analytical Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution, the Preservation Directorate of the Library of Congress, and the Association for the Conservation of the Cultural Patrimony of the Americas (APOYO), a seminar entitled 'Preventive conservation in Latin America'. The primary objective of the seminar was a greater exchange of information among conservators working in the area of preventive conservation throughout the Americas. Through papers and panel discussions, the seminar provided an opportunity for conservators from Latin America to discuss with North American colleagues the professional, social, and economic contexts in which they work, to report on research or practical work they have undertaken in the area of preventive conservation, and to describe training and educational programmes in preventive conservation for both conservators and non-conservators. For North American conservators the seminar was an opportunity to learn about conservation problems, research, and programmes in Latin America from the professionals involved in these activities. The seminar also introduced Latin American professionals to conservation approaches at some important cultural facilities in the United States, such as the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Library of Congress.

In September 1994, in Ottawa, Canada, the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) held its 15th International Congress. Following the worldwide trend the meeting was devoted to 'Preventive Conservation: Practice, Theory and Research'. The Getty Grant Program, another programme of the J. Paul Getty Trust, granted $60,000 to the congress organisers to invite 27 professionals from all over the world to attend this meeting.[13] Attendance at this meeting was of special interest to countries that do not have the benefit of advanced technology or the means to provide specialised treatments to their collections. This includes many countries of Central and South America, and the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, and Oceania, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Participants from these regions were exposed to the theories and practices of preventive conservation, and were able to create professional alliances and partnerships with colleague and institutions in other countries.

Information network

An important element, essential in establishing a solid base of preventive conservation in a region, is the timely distribution of current preventive conservation information in the vernacular language of the region. Forming an information network provides support, and gives people who are working under similar conditions, and dealing with identical problems and challenges, the opportunity to share experiences and solutions in a timely manner.

Creating an information network might start with just a simple two-page newsletter sent to a group of friends and colleagues. This was the beginning of APOYO, a network that grew from a tiny group of people into a solid and permanent network of 3,000 members all over the American hemisphere.

APOYO is the Association for the Conservation of the Cultural Patrimony of the Americas. APOYO — that translates as 'support' in Spanish — is a grass roots professional group, formed in 1989 as a non-profit organization, that supports the conservation of the cultural heritage of the Americas. With the participation of many volunteers and much hard work it has continued to grow for six years and is making a tremendous difference in preventive conservation throughout the entire region.

In 1989, through surveys and personal communications, the need for preventive conservation information in Spanish and Portuguese, as well as the need for information about professional meetings and training opportunities was identified. APOYO was formed and the main goals were stated as follows:

  • To create and nurture cohesive bonds among conservation and preservation professionals worldwide who are involved in the conservation of the cultural patrimony of the American hemisphere.
  • To promote high standards for the protection of the material cultural heritage of the Americas.
  • To gather and disseminate conservation and preservation information for the Latin American community in their native languages.

To achieve those goals, the immediate objective was to promote and accelerate the exchange of information on conservation/preservation and other issues related to the preservation of cultural heritage. APOYO did this through an outreach programme that identified colleagues in Latin America and the Caribbean, integrated them into a communications' network, established an accessible forum to present their work and current needs, and periodically provided them with timely and useful information to enhance their professional performance and raise the overall quality of conservation in the American hemisphere.

Currently, the network includes more than 3,000 conservation/preservation professionals and it continues to grow. The majority of the names in the database have been contributed through word-of-mouth and it includes the member's home rather than his or her institution's address. The greatest strength of the network is that it continues to be made up of individuals, not institutions. Of course, the majority of those individuals work in institutions, but the information is shared on a personal basis and the responsibility of promoting the well-being of the collections is placed on the individual. The network includes, in addition of the individuals directly responsible for the collections, other individuals in related fields, among them curators, collections' managers, educators, archaeologists, and architects.

The members of the network are drawn from throughout the Americas, as well as Spain and other countries. Not only is there a wide geographical representation, but there is also ample representation of conservators from diverse specialities such as paper, library and archival materials, textiles, photographs, paintings, ethnographic objects, sculpture, metals, stone, and natural science.

APOYO produces a bi-annual newsletter co-edited by Amparo R. de Torres and Ann Seibert, in collaboration with a group of volunteers and with the support of the Preservation Directorate of the Library of Congress, and the Conservation Analytical Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution. The volunteers send articles, news about events of interest to the conservation community, and help translate articles into Spanish from English, French, and German.

Each issue of the newsletter has a main preventive conservation topic. The second issue of 1994 contains three important articles on pest management. Two were translated from the September 1994 Special Preventive Conservation issue of the Canadian Conservation Institute newsletter; another was written in Spanish by Nieves Valentín of the Instituto de Restauracíon y Conservación de Bienes Culturales de Madrid.

In a joint project with ICCROM initiated in 1994, the APOYO and ICCROM mailing lists were merged. The new database is updated and managed by the Database Manager of ICCROM. The second stage of that project is to publish for the first time a directory of individuals who are working in the conservation of the cultural patrimony of the Americas. The directory will give the members the opportunity to initiate personal contacts and to establish professional joint projects in the region.

The most recent project is to mount APOYO on the Internet. When this is completed, APOYO will be accessible through the Internet and the World Wide Web. Not many people have access to electronic networks yet, but, this is changing very rapidly. For some people, electronic access may be the simplest and most direct way of sharing information in the future.

APOYO continues to be the voluntary effort of a small group of dedicated individuals, who make this information-sharing network accessible to over 3,000 individuals. The group has proven that this is a very real and tangible way to raise conservation awareness and improve the overall conservation of the cultural patrimony of the American hemisphere. APOYO has earned the respect and support of important organisations and institutions such as ICCROM, the IIC, the AIC, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.


There is a new worldwide trend in the direction of preventive conservation as a cost effective, holistic method to care for collections. Many institutions and training programmes are shifting their methods and policies to support and create a wide base of trained individuals who are able to provide more than just individualised treatment to the collections.

For the individual working on the conservation of cultural property, to live in isolation, devoid of information and professional contacts is very difficult and discouraging. The main goal of APOYO — to build a network to share preventive conservation information with individuals throughout the American hemisphere, and provide them with a forum to share their own accomplishments and challenges — is a reality today. The APOYO newsletter is contributing to the advancement of preventive conservation in Latin America and it has earned the respect and support of important organisations and institutions.

[1] Rose, Carolyn L. "Conservación Preventiva", APOYO, 3 ii (1992).

[2] National Park Service, Museum Handbook, Part I, pp. 3:1-3:18, Washington: US Government Printing Office (1990).

[3] Delta Plan for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, Fact Sheet, Office of the Director General for Cultural Affairs, P 0 Box 3009, 2280ML Rijswijk, The Netherlands.

[4] AIC News (September 1993) p. 15 and following.

[5] Cruz Souza, Luiz, "The teaching and practice of preventive conservation", in CECOR, Minas Gerais, Brazil, Seminar on Preventive Conservation in Latin America pre-prints, Washington DC: APOYO (1993).

[6] Caple, Chris, "Preventive conservation within conservation training programmes", in Preventive Conservation: Practice, Theory and Research, Pre-prints of the Contributions to the Ottawa Congress, 12-16 September 1994, London: International Institute for Conservation.

[7] Esguerra-Gouffray, Graciela, "Evolution of preventive conservation in Colombia", Seminar on Preventive Conservation in Latin America pre-prints, Washington DC: APOYO (1993).

[8] Vargas Tisnes, Gloria Mercedes, personal communication (1995).

[9] ICCROM Bulletin, 1995.

[10] Krebs, Magdalena, "Training in preventive conservation", Seminar on Preventive Conservation in Latin America pre-prints, Washington DC: APOYO (1993).

[11] APOYO, 6 i (1995).

[12] La Conservation Preventive, 3e colloque de l'Association des Restaurateurs d'Art et d'Archéologie de Formation Universitaire, Paris: ARAAFU.

Source note:

This article was published in the following book:
The Conservation and Preservation of Islamic Manuscripts, Proceedings of the third conference of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, 18th-19th November 1995 - English version, 1995, Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, pp. 185-194.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.
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