41st Annual Meeting – Discussion Session, June 1 "What is Value? A Socratic Dialogue" moderated by Bill Wei

“What is the value of conservation (of what I do)”, or, “What is the value for us, the funding agency, to (continue to) fund conservation (you)?”

One of the most important contemporary issues facing conservators today is the effect of the economic crisis and cost cutting on the preservation and conservation of cultural heritage. Conservators and other conservation professionals must continually defend their work and answer questions posed by funding agencies and sponsors, local, state, and national governments, the general public, and even many museums themselves. These include critical questions such as
– what is the value of cultural heritage in this day and age,
– how does one determine what is worth conserving, and
– why should cultural heritage be conserved, that is, why is conservation and why are conservators valuable?
In order to help answer these questions of “value”, the AIC organized the first of what hopefully will become a series of so-called Socratic dialogues at the most recent annual meeting in Indianapolis. At this first dialogue, forty participants and a number of observers investigated their own answers to the question, “What is the value of conservation (of what I do)”, or, asked from a different point of view, “What is the value for us, the funding agency, to (continue to) fund conservation (you)?”
A Socratic dialogue does not answer the question posed, but helps the participants dig deeper into the issue. The Socratic dialogue brought up a number of issues and concerns, not only referring to the question of what the value of conservation is, but also of what value itself means, what motivates conservators, and what it is that they are conserving. Here is a sample of what the participants found to be the essence of the dialogue:

  • What is “value”?
  • Are values shared across cultures? Across time?
  • How has the value of the conservator changed over time?
  • Can we combine our values with those of our stakeholders in our treatments?
  • How do we preserve intangible aspects of cultural that do not have objects associated with them, i.e. … sense of humor?
  • Positioning material culture with the richness of human engagement.
  • If the value of conservation is that it preserves cultural heritage, how do we justify the value of cultural heritage?
  • How do we share our passion?
  • How do we balance our role as interpreters with our ideal of neutrality?
  • Conservators contribute something essential to the significance of material objects and how these object can help us gain a better understanding of what it means to be human.
  • Conservation is a tool that helps facilitate better understanding and appreciation of material culture through preservation and documentation.
  • Value is intangible and conservators help to preserve often physical objects that give people the chance to connect, now or eventually, to those very personal values.
  • ΔG = ΔH – TΔS
  • I leave better able to articulate the societal importance of what we do and secure in the knowledge that others grapple with the same issues.

The response to the Socratic dialogue was overwhelmingly positive. The participants found this form of dialogue an excellent way to delve deeper into the question. It gave them the possibility to think and express their own opinions without being challenged, and then have a “safe”, non-aggressive environment to consider the deeper issues at hand. A full report has been submitted to AIC News for publication in September.
The AIC plans to conduct a Socratic dialogue at next year’s annual meeting in San Francisco. While a number of the essences are ideal topics in themselves, if you have suggestions for a topic, especially related to the sustainability theme of the meeting, please send them to the moderator/organizer, Bill Wei at b.wei@cultureelerfgoed.nl . For those participants who did not leave their e-mail addresses, he would also like to hear your comments and suggestions.