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Standards for conservation

Standards for conservation

Standards affect many aspects of our lives. One can barely get through a day without some standard being applied, from the power plug on our laptop charger, to Website Accessibility Standards, to law, medicine, architecture and even advertising. Standards are there not to restrict or burden our lives but rather to make things better and more reliable; to protect us; and to help ensure best practice in the services we receive and provide.

Heritage and conservation standards

Many of our heritage colleagues use standards in their professional lives. Spectrum, for instance - the UK Collections Management Standard - is internationally recognised for documenting collections. BS 7913 Guide to the conservation of historic buildings has been around since 1998 and is widely used by conservation architects and contractors.

Icon members are already aware of the Professional Standards which underlie Icon’s Code of Practice, its Accreditation scheme and the associated CPD. More specifically, published conservation standards have been available for quite a few years. For instance, conservators working in libraries and archives are quite familiar with BS 5454 which began life in 1977. It has been widely used, though considerably criticised, the more so in recent years for its excessive rigidity on environmental control and the expense of its recommendations. It was replaced by PD 5454:2012 Guide for the storage and exhibition of archival materials, to bring its environmental advice more in line with current conservation thinking.

PAS 198 Specification for managing environmental conditions, was created in 2012 under the auspices of BSI, led by The National Archives in collaboration with and financially supported by the sector. It reflects a challenge from national directors and others for development of an environmental standard which was less reliant on fossil fuels and underpinned by advances in scientific research.

Now in preparation, BS EN 16893, ‘Buildings for the storage and use of collections’, will be the first ever building construction standard intended to cover museums and galleries as well as archives and libraries. The work is being carried out under the European banner and is intended to replace both of the above documents.

Environmental guidance for archival collections will now be included in BS 4971, currently under review and to be called Conservation and care of archive and library collections. This ‘Code of Practice’ standard, which has been around since 1973 under the title Repairs and allied processes for the conservation of documents. was widely used in the archives sector, setting out to instruct ‘operatives’ on how to repair documents. It has evolved over the years, becoming increasingly focused on preventive activities and material qualities, and its new iteration, due for public consultation in 2016, will concentrate on planning, preventive measures and the criteria to be used when designing and evaluating remedial conservation projects. Its target audience will no longer be solely conservators but will also aim to help custodians. It is being re-focussed away from being a prescriptive standard (“Do it like this!”) towards being a performance standard (“This is the result you need to achieve”).

Do we need standards in conservation?

It is true that our profession has lots of books, conference proceedings and journals. Yet their wisdom is in a format not easily conveyed to others such as colleagues, clients or contractors. Conservators cannot point to them and say: “This is what we are about, this is how we work, this is our approach, these are the criteria which matter. Here, read the several hundred pages in this book and you’ll understand”. In contrast, standards documents, which are generally quite concise, do encapsulate the latest thinking and best practice for a wider audience. To quote BSI: “Standards are the distilled wisdom of people with expertise in their subject matter and who know the needs of the organizations they represent.” In compiling them conservators agree with each other what they are trying to do and often seek the agreement of colleagues and clients too. Standards are in fact excellent advocacy tools for conservation. We could make more use of them for that purpose.

“In essence, a standard is an agreed way of doing something.” It may take the form of guidelines, a specification, a code of practice or a glossary of terms. Some conservators may feel that having to conform to standards infringes their professional judgement, but this is definitely not the intention. They are not themselves mandatory or legally binding; rather they can be used as benchmarks, though they can be made requirements of contractual arrangements. Nor are they fixed for all time. Provided they have been found useful they are revised every five years, to reflect current practice.

The latest conservation standards

For the last eleven years a new dynamic been applied to the creation of conservation standards under the auspices of CEN (Comité Européen de Normalisation or European Committee for Standardisation), a public standards organisation founded in 1961. Although it is closely linked to the EU its membership includes non-EU bodies, such those from Norway and Switzerland and other countries currently outside the EU, so the UK’s involvement is unlikely to be affected by Brexit; indeed BSI says that it intends to remain a member of the CEN community. The UK works with CEN via its BSI Committee B/560: Conservation of tangible cultural heritage, on which are represented the main UK heritage, museum and conservation bodies, including Icon.

It was an initiative by Italian conservation scientists and architects which resulted in a new CEN Technical Committee being created: TC 346: Conservation of cultural heritage. Although the UK was at first sceptical of the whole project, we are now fully engaged. Furthermore, English is the working language of the project so all documents are first drafted in English; all working groups and committees discuss everything in English and native English speakers are valued at all meetings and in correspondence. The scope for UK conservators to influence these standards is therefore considerable.

How a standard is made

The process of creating a new standard starts with someone, namely a national expert, proposing a new work item which – if it is agreed by everyone as worth pursuing – is taken up by a working group which meets to compile a draft; a wide-reaching consultation follows; then refinement in the light of comments leads to the final version. All agreed documents are published in three languages (English, German and French), and translated by some other countries for their own use. The production of a published document takes up to 27 months.

It must be said that discussion with non-UK colleagues on our different approaches to conservation concepts and practice is valuable in itself: revealing, stimulating, though-provoking and humbling.

A few examples

The range of conservation topics is considerable (25 published so far) and includes, for example, the lighting of museum exhibitions, the design of showcases, packing for transport, condition recording, heating within buildings, laser cleaning, the characterisation of waterlogged wood and analytical techniques for assessing change and the water permeability of stone before and after treatment. A standard on Integrated Pest Management was published in August 2016 and is likely to have a big impact in all manner of heritage organisations.

Two standards now under way are Conservation Process and Investigation of architectural finishes. The first concerns decision making, planning and implementation, in effect a conceptual framework for planning conservation and agreeing it with others; the other addresses the procedure, methodology and documentation of results as a way of promoting better understanding of building archaeology by properly recording decorative surfaces, other than wall paintings. Another standard on which work is about to start is The Commissioning of Conservation Work

One quite fundamental standard, BS 15898:2012, now up for revision, concerns 52 of the Main General Terms and Definitions used in conservation. Addressing such familiar words as “object”, “condition”, “authenticity” and even “conservation”, it has proved its worth, in part because it underlies the vocabulary used in all the other conservation standards. It is one not insignificant mark of professionalism to use language in a consistent fashion.

How can they be obtained?

The standards are sold by the BSI shop in hard copy and as downloads. If your organisation subcribes to BSI the cost of each document is halved. You can also consult standards in libraries which subscribe, as do University libraries. One alternative is to ask to see a copy held by someone else. Purchase could be offset against tax.

Find out more

To enquire about becoming involved in the rewarding preparation of standards or to suggest a new one, contact the Icon office in the first instance to be put in touch with a standards representative of one of the relevant UK heritage and conservation organisations. Commenting on draft standards is a particularly valuable contribution and Icon welcomes your participation. We will endeavour to keep you notified of new drafts which are open for comment.

Authors: David Leigh, with help from Jane Henderson, Chris Woods, Barry Knight and Nancy Bell
Image: Bianca Harvey