45th Annual Meeting – General Session: Beyond Treatment, Wednesday May 31, 2017, “What’s so Ethical about Doing Nothing?”, Jonathan Ashley-Smith

Despite describing himself throughout his presentation as a 20th century dinosaur, Jonathan Ashley-Smith gave a very humorous and thought-provoking presentation on a topic that is very relevant to conservators of this and any other century. It overlapped and contrasted in a very interesting way with Elena Torok and Meg Loew Craft’s paper, presented shortly afterwards, “In Support of the Bigger Picture: Preventive Conservation as a Recognized Specialty”.

There was a lot of depth to the presentation – too much to be clearly conveyed in this post – and I hope that a paper is published so that I and others can take the time to digest and debate the issues raised. To cut to the chase, Ashley-Smith’s presentation lamented the loss of in-depth treatment knowledge and well-developed hand skills in the ‘modern’ conservator. He attributed this partly to the increase in preventive conservation activities in institutions, partly to the shift away from a craftsman model towards a more intellectual or scientific focus, and partly to a decline in the teaching and maintenance (including professional development) of interventive treatment skills.

In presenting this thesis, Ashley-Smith did not deny the need for preventive conservation. He sees the increase in preventive activities as a response to budgetary pressures, where arguments of economies of scale and the risks associated with interventive treatment are encouraging institutions to favour “doing nothing”. He does remind us, however, that preventive conservation does not do nothing – you can alter the dimensions or rate of degradation of artifacts through altering their storage climate – with obvious potential benefit as well as risk. Furthermore, objects are not held in suspended animation in storage, they are just in a waiting room until they are “displayed, mended, rehoused, thrown out, studied or mauled”. In storage risk can be controlled but not eliminated.

With regards to his second point, Ashley-Smith argues that the decline in practical skills has occurred due to an increased focus on the intellectual, brains over hands. He cites the example of a skilled conservator with 40 years experience who was asked to leave his university teaching position because he did not have a doctorate. This is causing a decline in standards where conservators no longer have the required knowledge and hand skills to undertake complex treatments. In such a case it is unethical to undertake treatments where you do not have the required skills and experience, but it is not because the treatment in itself is unethical.

In addition, Ashley-Smith contends that there has also been a move by professional conservation associations to reduce risk, which is being achieved through increasingly narrow interpretations of what constitutes ethical treatment. In their turn, codes of ethics reference greater enforcement of ethical standards, with associated exclusion of those who do not meet the standards. This can be exacerbated by
social media where conservators can be shamed away from actions that others believe are wrong, and leads both to conformity and hiding skills, also preventing the development and celebration of treatment skills.

As a solution to these issues, Ashley-Smith has several propositions for conservation professional associations: to embrace diversity and inclusion, and reject conformity, through stimulating consistent reasoning and active discussion, and encouraging individual accountability; and to create more fellowships and internships for further study and practice of interventive treatment in individual conservation specialisations. If institutions are unable to accommodate this then it could be achieved by supporting the private conservation sector to offer training in hands on skills.

In finishing with a quote from Joni Mitchell, “that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”, Ashley-Smith left the audience to think about and debate this important topic.