Ethics in Conservation of Original Materials

Dr. Rivka Tamara Sevy


Conservation means maintaining an artifact through time. Deriving from the Greek ethos (ἔθος), and synonymous with the Latin mores, Ethics signifies habit or conduct of an individual or a society. Ethics in conservation refers to the conduct enabling the truthful transmission of artifacts through time.

Conservation and Ethics are round and complex terms that underwent developments and elaborations. It also bears to remember that as Ethics has its own perspective and values scale, so does Conservation. As humans or societies conceive and forms their conduct or ethics, conservation filters what humans choose to turn into part of his history and heritage(1). Cesare Brandi(2), the twentieth century eminent art historian and theorist of conservation, considered that this appropriation occurs with the process of recognition of the historic, esthetic, anthropologic, or artistic value of an object or a place. Moreover, the peculiarity of these selected objects or sites is that their value is repeatedly reconfirmed in an individual's or society's mind. For Brandi, therefore, this recognition is the process which determines conservation, or practically, if a work will or will not be conserved. While the recognition of valued objects or sites became part of human evolution, the question related to how these should be preserved has been the topic of different theories and practices.

When completed and released by its creator, an artifact starts its own voyage through time. Unless it suffers an accident (or a bad restoration), the artifact will subsist for its own lifespan, and like any organic and inorganic material, depending on surrounding conditions, it will gradually deteriorate, leaving little or no trace of its existence and of the information it carried to the next generations.

In The Seven Lamps of Architecture(3) published in 1849 and, in particular, The Lamp of Memory, the British art historian and philosopher John Ruskin claimed that it is 'as impossible as to raise the dead' to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful.

This romantic idea of worshipping a disappearing past was countered by others’ unwillingness to lose important objects or places to the damaging effects of time and human activity. Throughout history, this desire led many individuals to devise different means of preserving valued items for as long as possible.

Indeed, Ruskin's contemporary, the extraordinarily talented French architect Eugene Viollet le Duc(4), argued that in order to maintain a building alive it must be restored to the initial and sometime even the unachieved state intended by its creator. This approach articulates a pragmatic ethics stipulating that ideas and knowledge are instruments for activity and not mere spectators of an outside realm. These opposite romantic and pragmatic ethics should not, however, guide conservation. Both in fact contradict it, as the first may lead to the annihilation of the valuable artifact, and the second to its falsification.

Brandi's approach that defines conservation as the methodological moment of recognition of the artifact in its historic and aesthetic values with the duty to transmit them to the next generations implies that the artifact cannot be subjected to neglect or to falsification. According to Brandi's Teoria del Restauro, the ideal process of conservation, consists in attenuating the normal curve of deterioration and maintaining it as parallel as possible to the horizontal axis of time. In practice, however, it is evident that any intervention causes a loss of historic and perhaps even esthetic information, and the greater the intervention the greater the damage.

This deeper understanding of conservation gradually paved the way to the development of Ethics in Conservation, aiming at edifying the vocation of the conservator and leading the process of conservation toward a truthful transmission of the artifact, its values and all the information it carries. It gradually became evident that this can be best accomplished by reducing the damage caused by time, and by minimizing the side effects of the intervention. Ethics in conservation can be viewed as one equilateral triangle, where each side is indispensable to its existence. The first side refers to the recognition of what is to be conserved, the second to why it should be conserved, and the third to how it should be conserved. Addressing these three questions together can ensure the correct and most appropriate conduct in the process of conservation.

Answering the what question, recognizes the historic, anthropologic, religious, documentary, artistic, or personal value of the object. Answering the why question acknowledges understanding and respecting the function of the object. Answering the how question will determine the type and extent of intervention. This implies warranting that the process of conservation is informed by the required knowledge and is carried out by professionals who have the appropriate skills to ensure the proper conservation of the artifact, its function and the information it carries.

Many ruins have been identified by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites and they are preserved as areas of outstanding value to humanity. Their function is to commemorate ancient civilizations, acts of human-made destruction, or crystallize natural disasters. The value of the ruin is acknowledged and its function is respected. The conservation process will therefore, ensure a close surveillance of its state and provide for the consolidation of the vestige as a vestige. There will be no attempt whatsoever to restore the ruins to their original (even if known) aspect, as the ruin has a function that has to be preserved.

The Madonna of the Goldfinch was painted by Raffaello Sanzio for the wedding of the Florentine Lorenzo Nasi, in 1506. From its creation and despite its religious allegorical theme, this painting has been recognized through the ages as a work of high artistic value. In 1547 the work accidentally broke into many pieces. Since the mishap few efforts were made to reassemble and restore the valuable masterpiece. In 1998 a ten year long conservation work was undertaken by the laboratories of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. The appreciation of the artistic importance of the work, and the respect for its aesthetic value determined how the conservation intervention was to be performed. All the knowledge and most advanced professional skills were invested in the process of restoring the aesthetic function of the work, thereby enabling its maintenance and transmission to the generations to come.

The Siddur, or the Jewish missal, contains all the instructions and texts necessary for the celebration of prayers throughout the year. It is a sacred book of religious, and very often, also of very personal value. According to the Jewish tradition, when a sacred book is worn out and cannot be used, it must go to the Gheniza (repository), until it is properly buried.

With Heaven’s Aid, 18 MarHeshvan 5750, 16/11, 1989

This Siddur has been purchased by me in Auschwitz in the year 1944.

I bought it from a gentile (Russian) with part of my daily ration of bread.

With this Siddur I went through the road of sorrows in the death and concentration camps of Germany.

This special Siddur I donate today to YAD VASHEM in Jerusalem, as a remembrance to the generations to come, in memory and to the elevation of the souls of my parents David and Malka Koplowitz, be their memory blessed, to my wife’s parents Shlomo and Zahava Weiss, be their memory blessed, to my brothers and sisters and all the relatives who perished in the Holocaust, may God avenge their blood. Zvi Koplowitz, resident of the city Holon

(Figure 1: Siddur, Yad Vashem Museum, Jerusalem)

The Yad Vashem Museum holds a particular Siddur which, although no longer used as a book of prayer, will not be put in the Genizah. This Siddur (Figure 1) has definitely a religious value, but unlike other books of prayers found in synagogues or individuals’ possession, its function is to commemorate, to be a living proof of a Journey through Hell. The Siddur’s value and function will impose the how of conservation. The religious value forbids its destruction and its function imposes that its cover, its worn out leaves, its smell, and its pages soaked with tears must fulfill the owner’s will. Hence, every effort should be made by the conservator to ensure the Siddur’s continuous existence and physical integrity, in order to preserve its value and function through time.

While the same ethical principles of recognizing the value, understanding the function, and utilizing the best knowledge to maintain the artifact and its function should be upheld, the conservation of audio or visual records (photographs, films, voice records) is a more complex issue. The audio or visual recordings of past historical events that are caught as images or sound tracks are not the original. There is no physical original. The event took place and vanished into the past, and what remains is a visual or acoustic representation of the event. The Nazi Book burnings (Bücherverbrennung) that took place in the Opernplatz, in Berlin on May 10, 1933 is an historical event, already considered by Reich Minister Goebbels on that very night as "a strong, great and symbolic undertaking". The event has been document by a series of photographs and films.

These photographs and films are media, the means, or better, the only means to preserve the event. The reason why this media should be conserved is because their function is to be an eloquent testimony to these historical events and prevent their forgetting. One of the pictures of May 10th 1933 (Figure 2), records not only the historical event, but also the expression of those present, reflecting their state of mind and the deep conviction that led them to burn the books. Conserving the information displayed on a medium presents the conservator with a different challenge, and in a way a greater responsibility, as the original, that is the past event, cannot be reconstructed. The original is in no way tangible, it has never been except in the very moment it occurred. It is therefore imperative not only to secure that what is seen or heard will not disappear, but also to seek for the best and constantly updated medium that will ensure the most faithful transmission of the information to the next generations. (Figure 2: Book burnings (Bücherverbrennung) - May 10, 1933, Opernplatz, Berlin [Wikimedia Commons - Bundesarchiv Bild 102-12598])

By choosing what will be conserved, the individual and society shape their personal and collective memory. The great change assumed in the field of conservation occurred with the awareness of the role and responsibility it partakes in this process. Grasping the importance of being part of such a meaningful process imposes that conservation should be understood and enacted only the within the boundaries of Ethics in conservation.

Dr. Rivka Sevy, Conservation of Material Culture Heritage, Department of Archeology, University of Haifa

(1) Bernard Berenson, Preface to The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, London, The Phaidon Press, 1959.

(2) Cesare Brandi, Teoria del Restauro, Torino, Giulio Einaudi Eds., 1977 and 2000.

(3) John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, New York, John Wiley, 1849.

(4) Paul Gout, Viollet-Le-Duc, sa vie, son œuvre, sa doctrine, Paris, E. Champion, 1914.