39th Annual Meeting – General Session, June 1, “Conservation in the Twenty-First Century: Will a Twentieth Century Code of Ethics Suffice?” By Barbara Applebaum

Barbara Applebaum has always been known as a thinker who asks intriguing questions.  She is the author of the book “Conservation Treatment Methodology” published in 2007.  She serves up some of the same complex questions in the opening presentation of the 39th annual AIC meeting.  Applebaum demands that we think about the hard questions.  In this presentation, she examines the AIC code of ethics and guiding documents that define our profession both internally and to the outside world.

The AIC documents are made up of three levels of guidance.  The AIC Code of Ethics is aspirational in nature.  The guidelines for practice offer us the specifications of expected practice. The commentaries of the guidelines serve as section by section discussions on the minimum and optimum best practices. It is easiest to make changes to the commentaries.  For the most part they define things that we all learned growing up.  They guard against things like lying, cheating, and stealing.  Applebaum suggests that conservation professionals should read through the documents on a regular schedule.

Applebaum feels that the AIC guiding documents are as valid today as when they were first drafted.  She likens them to the “ten commandments,” and feels that they regulate the conservation practice accordingly.  Then she moves on to some of the most interesting questions of the presentation.  Does the detail focused nature of work with cultural heritage attract the personality that nitpicks and over analyzes the tasks at hand?  Are we a people searching for imperfections in the AIC Code?  Have we spent a decade looking inward at the issue of certification to the detriment of the profession?

We must fight the tide of negativity and take our place the outside world, Applebaum reminds us.  We must realistically evaluate all that is going on around us and understand the needs of the museum, private collectors and the public.  While the AIC guiding documents were drafted at a time when the profession was mostly institutionally focused, we increasingly work in private practice.  Our colleagues are diverse, working on heritage from ethnographic objects, architecture, archives and libraries among others in addition to works of art.

We must recognize that our work sometimes moves from the care of cultural property belonging to the whole human race to the intimate objects and personal property that never rises to the level of cultural heritage.  These items are things like a child’s drawing, a clay ashtray, etc. The usefulness of the AIC code of ethics on personal items is small.  Still, thorough professional training is required to practice conservation in an ethical manner on all objects.

Applebaum reminds us that we must educate others on the good we can do for people, with an emphasis on the added value we provide.  In our work, we must remember the conservation is as much about the people we help as it is about the chemistry and material of the object.