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n – Equivalent French: préservation; Spanish: preservación; German: Bewahrung, Erhaltung; Italian: preservazione; Portuguese: preservaçāo.

To preserve means to protect a thing or a group of things from different hazards such as destruction, deterio- ration, separation or even theft; this protection is ensured by gathering the collection in one place, inventori- sing it, sheltering it, making it secure and repairing it.

tumblr_nbdytziJr81qzd1nwo4_1280Long Museum West Bund by Atelier Deshaus

In museology, preservation covers all the operations involved when an object enters a museum, that is to say all the operations of acquisition, entering in the inventory, recording in the catalogue, placing in storage, conservation, and if necessary restoration. The preservation of heritage generally leads to a policy which starts with the establishment of a procedure and criteria for acquisition of the material and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, and continues with the management of those things which have become museum objects, and finally with their conservation. In this sense the concept of preservation represents that which is fundamentally at stake in museums, because the building up of collections structures the mission of museums and their development. Preservation is one axis of museal action, the other being transmission to the public.

tumblr_n2aembNNoU1qzd1nwo5_500Victoria & Albert Museum by 6a architects

1. The acquisition policy is, in most cases, a fundamental part of the way any museum operates. Acquisition, within the museum, brings together all the means by which a museum takes possession of the material and intangible heritage of humanity: collecting, archaeological digs, gifts and legacy, exchange, purchase, and sometimes methods reminiscent of pillage and abduction (combated by ICOM and UNESCO – Recommen- dation of 1956 and Convention of 1970). The management of collections and the overseeing of collections comprise all the operations connected with the administrative handling of museum objects, that is to say their recording in the museum catalogue or registration in the museum inventory in order to certify their museal status – which, in some countries, gives them a specific legal status, since the items entered in the inventory, especially in publicly owned museums, are inalienable and imprescriptible. In some countries such as the United States, museums may exceptionally deaccession objects by transfer to another museal institution, destruction or sale. Storage and classification are also part of collection management, along with the supervision of all movements of objects within and outside the museum. Finally, the objective of conservation is to use all the means necessary to guarantee the condition of an object against any kind of alteration in order to bequeath it to future generations. In the broadest sense these actions include overall security (protection against theft and vandalism, fire and floods, earthquakes or riots), general measures known as preventive conservation, or “all measures and actions aimed at avoiding and minimizing future deterioration or loss. They are carried out within the context or on the surroundings of an item, but more often a group of items, whatever their age and condition. These measures and actions are indirect – they do not interfere with the materials and structures of the items. They do not modify their appearance” (ICOM- CC, 2008). Additionally, remedial conservation is “all actions directly applied to an item or a group of items aimed at arresting current damaging processes or reinforcing their structure. These actions are only carried out when the items are in such a fragile condition or deteriorating at such a rate that they could be lost in a relatively short time. These actions sometimes modify the appearance of the items” (ICOM-CC, 2008). Restoration covers “all actions directly applied to a single and stable item aimed at facilitating its appreciation, understanding and use. These actions are only carried out when the item has lost part of its significance or function through past alteration or deterioration. They are based on respect for the original material. Most often such actions modify the appearance of the item” (ICOM-CC, 2008). To preserve the integrity of the items as far as possible, restorers choose interventions which are reversible and can be easily identified.

tumblr_n1epfoDbBh1qzd1nwo1_1280Dingli Sculpture Art Museum by ATR Atelier

2. In practice, the concept of conservation is often preferred to that of preservation. For many museum professionals, conservation, which addresses both the action and the intention to protect cultural property, whether material or intangible, constitutes a museum’s core mission. This explains the use in French of the word conservateurs (in English curators, in the UK keepers) which appeared at the time of the French Revolution. For a long time (throughout the 19th century at least) this word seems to have best described the function of a museum. Moreover the current definition of museum by ICOM (2007) does not use the term preservation to cover the concepts of acquisition and conservation. From this perspective, the notion of conservation should probably be envisaged in a much wider sense, to include questions of inventories and storage. Nonetheless, this concept collides with a different reality, which is that conservation (for example, in the ICOM Conservation Committee) is much more clearly connected with the work of conservation and restoration, as described above, than with the work of management or overseeing of the collections. New professional fields have evolved, in particular collection archivists and registrars. The notion of preservation takes account of all these activities.

tumblr_mvh8lxgTqd1qzd1nwo6_1280Museum De Fundatie by Bierman Henket architecten

3. The concept of preservation, in addition, tends to objectivise the inevitable tensions which exist between each of these functions (not to mention the tensions between preservation and communication or research), which have often been the target of much criticism: “The idea of conservation of the heritage takes us back to the anal drives of all capi- talist societies” (Baudrillard, 1968; Deloche, 1985, 1989). A number of acquisition policies, for example, include deaccession policies at the same time (Neves, 2005). The ques- tion of the restorer’s choices and, generally speaking, the choices to be made with regard to conservation operations (what to keep and what to discard?) are, along with deaccession, some of the most controversial issues in museum management. Finally, museums are increasingly acquiring and preserving intangible heritage, which presents new problems and forces them to find conservation techniques which can be adapted for these new types of heritage.

tumblr_mutjn8mU1y1qzd1nwo2_1280Eli & Edythe Broad Art Museum by Zaha Hadid Architects

Resources: André Desvallées and François Mairesse

And the assistance of the ICOM International Committee for Museology

Main image and for social networks:Messner Mountain Museum Corones (MMM Corones)


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