Before I begin, I must say that this blogpost is merely a discussion centred around my initial thoughts at the beginning of the conservation process of a British military uniform. I very much enjoy a lengthy debate about an object’s significance, but I must say that it becomes very different when that discourse becomes a reality. It is easy in a lecture to dispute opinions and to bring in hypothetical situations and talk about our integrity that we are so full of. For me, the object that has filled me with confliction is a British Battledress Blouse. I use the term ‘conflict’ as there is a definite dichotomy to my thoughts. My mind stems into two separate issues: one of a personal nature: that the blouse and the surrounding element can be used to enforce a dangerous narrative. The other is what I feel to be the more rational approach and the acknowledgment of a larger contextual framework.
The apprehensive aspect of working with the item is that it is used to portray war and because in its most basic form it is, essentially, a product of war. And within this I worry that it can be used to narrate and push forward dangerous ideals: that of British Nationalism. Especially in this current political climate which has seen a rapid rise in far-right beliefs being brought on by this sense of nationalism. The question becomes: where does historical debt and remembrance translate into something dangerous and exclusive? The Institute of Conservation (ICON)’s Professional Standard xii states a conservator “is able to handle value-conflicts and ethical dilemmas in a manner which maintains the interests of cultural heritage” (ICON. 2014a). My one main worry is that I am not giving the object the respect that it deserves by having these thoughts.
But what is the difference in conserving a Battledress Blouse and an archaeological arrowhead? Both represent violence. However, I wouldn’t question conserving an arrowhead. The root lies in the fact that the issue is more political in nature, perhaps it is easier to feel strongly about something that is within living memory, and campaigning and marching against war is something that I spend my time doing.
I know that many people have an opposite view and that raising these opinions can cause offence. The Museum Association’s Code of Ethics 1.3 states “Support free speech and freedom of expression. Respect the right of all to express different views within the museum unless illegal to do so or inconsistent with the purpose of the museum as an inclusive public space” (Museums Association. 2015) and so there is the need to acknowledge the differing opinions.
I don’t think that this discussion can be viewed as arguments and counterpoints but is about respecting other points of view. Nonetheless, I feel as a conservator we must be having this sort of conversation with ourselves, about everything we conserve. Article 5 of the European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers’ Professional Guidelines says, “The Conservator-restorer shall respect the aesthetic, historic and spiritual significance and the physical integrity of the cultural heritage entrusted to his/her care” (E.C.C.O. 2003). There is the idea that an object’s significance rests on a conceptual framework rather than just its physical being. (Clavir, M. 1996.) So, if this is the case, is it possible to disregard the history behind the object, especially if the history is the reasoning for its existence? As conservators we must recognise the history of our objects and the history of the nations that they represent, and that that history can make us uncomfortable. But we must acknowledge it while being aware of the thought processes of the time and attempt to place objects into the context of the time.
Working on the garment by no means implies that I am glorifying what it represents, it simply means an acceptance of what has happened before. The Historic England Conservation Principles 2.2 states that “Learning is central to sustaining the historic environment. It raises people’s awareness and understanding of their heritage, including the varied ways in which its values are perceived by different generations and communities” (Historic England. 2008). This principle implies an oppositional view to one of my worries; that the Blouse could actually be interpreted in a positive manner.
Conservators, perhaps more so than anyone else, become closest to the objects that we are assigned. We analyse them from every angle and at every stage of its life; we break it down (sometimes literally!) into different pieces so that we can get a glimpse into the very core of its existence. We must look into not only the obvious outer materials but into the fibres and atoms that hold it together. The ethical codes of conduct, practice and principles all lead to the fact that I should be following the rational part of my brain that lends itself to working on the Blouse. All of our working goes into preserving the life that existed within the object, but the interpretation of it doesn’t fall on our shoulders.
Our role on an object, in our lab, finishes when it is returned so our touch on an object is fleeting. ICON’s Code of Conduct states that “You should strive to conserve cultural heritage so that it can continue to be used for education and enjoyment, as reliable evidence of the past and as a resource for future study” (ICON. 2014b) and so that’s what I will do: conserve the object because the future’s understanding isn’t mine to decide.
European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers‘ Organisations. 2003. E.C.C.O Professional Guidelines (II) Code of Conduct.
Available at: http://www.ecco-eu.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ECCO_professional_guidelines_II.pdf
Historic England. 2008. Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance.
Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/conservation-principles-sustainable-management-historic-environment/conservationprinciplespoliciesandguidanceapril08web/
ICON. 2014a. The Institute of Conservation: Professional Standards.
Available at: https://icon.org.uk/system/files/documents/professional-standards-2016.pdf
ICON. 2014b. The Institute of Conservation: Code of Conduct.
Available at: https://icon.org.uk/system/files/documents/icon_code_of_conduct.pdf
Museum Association. 2015. Code of Ethics for Museums.
Available at: https://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=1155827