Saturday, March 6, 2010

Not Cultured Enough?

Last week, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Salzburg Global Seminar (SGS) announced the release of a report entitled “Connecting to the World’s Collections: Making the Case for Conservation and Preservation of Our Cultural Heritage.” The report was based on a seminar held in Salzburg from October 28 to November last year. The seminar, which formed part of the IMLS’s multi-year initiative on collections care, "Connecting to Collections: A Call to Action," explored global themes related to conservation and preservation, including international needs, issues, perspectives, and accomplishments.

As IMLS proudly states in its press release -

"The report includes practical recommendations to ensure optimal collections conservation worldwide and the Salzburg Declaration on the Conservation and Preservation of Cultural, which was passed by 60 participants hailing from 32 countries. The session combined presentations by leading experts in conservation and preservation throughout the world with small working groups tasked to make recommendations for future action in key areas, including emergency preparedness, education and training, public awareness, new preservation approaches, and assessment and planning."

Which is all well and good, and makes for an impressive report. I would certainly urge anyone with an interest in collections care to download and read it.

However, I do have one question for IMLS, and that is this - how was it possible, out of 60 participants and 32 countries, that you did not manage to include a single delegate who works with natural history collections? Natural history specimens are, unarguably, part of our cultural heritage. They present particular challenges that would not be adequately covered by a group of people whose experience lies in the preservation of relatively small numbers of objects with relatively high monetary value. They encompass types of preservation - e.g. fluids - which are unfamiliar to arts conservators. And their pattern of usage is quite different.

IMLS has an excellent track record in supporting conservation projects in the natural sciences - in my own department here at Yale they are currently funding the upgrading and rehousing of our fossil fish collection. This makes the omission of natural history collections from the SGS seminar even more puzzling. It is true that natural history conservation is a specialized field, but I could easily come up with a list of 10 or more conservators in the US or UK that are experienced in this area and if I can do this then surely it's not beyond the abilities of IMLS. As it is, the absence of the natural sciences from this report significantly weakens its claim to "ensure optimal preservation of collections worldwide."

Mind you, I've always been skeptical about the value of "declarations;" after all, when was the last time any of us cited the "Declaration of Albuquerque"?

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