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Can objects die and if so who decides?

Who are the custodians of 'value' and how do they decide that an object cannot or should not be saved? Two conservators discuss

Following a spirited discussion among Icon’s global Twitterati, we asked two participants, Jane Henderson ACR of Cardiff University and Lizz Thrasher of the Diefenbunker Museum, to discuss whether or not objects can 'die', who signs the death warrant and what happens afterwards.​​​

Jane Henderson (JH): Recently a Cardiff University student, Catherine Fairless, was working on a significance statement for an object in very poor condition. It raised the question ‘when do objects have no value left and who calls it?’ Or, put another way, ‘can objects die?'

As conservators, we are used to discussing the value of objects, whether social, cultural knowledge or experience. Many erudite papers and books explore the topic. We are good at measuring loss in value: we can count our just noticeable fades, quantify the fraction susceptible and the loss in value. What is the point at which this crystallizes into total loss?

Conservators are well placed to call the future of materials, silk shattered by light, leather crumbling with rot, plastic curling and oozing, but can we say ‘there is nothing left here’?

This cannot be a decision made without consultation: owners, custodians and the community might have views about preserving the last fragments of a relic or retouching and replacing to continue the spirit of an item. Is there a point when no one speaks up for the use or retention of the object and the treatment is so complex or intense and the outcomes so limited that we say there is no point going on and that this object is ‘dead’?

In making a decision that an object is dead can we ever consult with all stakeholders?

Lizz Thrasher (LT): There are objects that are beyond salvation: usually those that already contain an element of inherent vice that precludes any long-term stability. The painful reality is that space and budget restraints mean that we have to decide where resources are best spent.

Where an object would represent a sizeable expenditure in treatment or specialised storage, and when most information as to its importance or construction is lost, then yes, it is ‘dead’.

Theoretically, there might be some use in making an object of that nature part of a ‘study collection’ or giving it over to research, but I think that we have to be ready and able to say ‘there is nothing I can do’.

This is not a decision that is made lightly. And even once it is made, extensive documentation should be undertaken to preserve the little information that may remain. The decision must be made between conservators, curators and the community, but conservators are best able to address the needs of the object, the likely outcome, and the practical reality.

It is somewhat disheartening to make this decision, but it is necessary. It’s not something that we are particularly trained for, or even something that is really discussed. Although it might feel like an admission of defeat, it is better viewed as a way of moving forward with treatments and projects that are more viable.

JH: So if there is an end point and we an essential part of the team, what is the basis on which we make the decision?

Lizz mentioned that we don’t talk about this much as a profession. Conservation is a sociocultural process and related to more than the tangible. It is the conservation of value (or significance) that we aim for and that value is expressed by people.

In making a decision that an object is dead can we ever consult with all of the current stakeholders and/or represent the views of future users? Is there a cultural bias in those whose opinions we seek out?

When working with first people’s collections we can look back on past decision-making, and see that we failed to ask for or understand a different perspective on preservation.

As Lex Townsend asked, are there things we were not aware of because we did not ask? While we are asking, can objects have different (non-monetary) values that mean that there is no presumption that they should all be treated equally?

Lastly, if we are essential to the decision to ‘call it a day’, do we have any ethical or practical guidance? Does any organisation have criteria for disposal based on condition beyond the basic statements of disposal policies[i]?

LT: According to my training, objects on the bench are treated equally, without regard for tangible or intangible value. Conservation has to be purely objective. Objects are material X, created by process Y. My job (as I see it) is to treat the object so that the core information it contains (form, function, material and technique) can be interpreted by curatorial and community members.

However, once the core information represented by the object has been obscured or lost due to hopelessly irreversible degradation or damage, then interventive treatment is no longer an option, and preventative care and stabilisation remain as courses of action. In extreme cases, stabilisation and preventative care will be unsuccessful as well.

This is where I feel that the decision to declare the object ‘dead’ becomes open for discussion with curatorial staff and the members of the relevant cultural communities.

Ultimately, we are stewards, not owners

Ultimately, we are stewards, not owners. Consultation with the relevant cultural community is key. We should be prepared to explain the situation with the object, and be able to work with the cultural community to honour the object's significance. And I think this could be facilitated in a variety of ways depending on the cultural community and its traditions. And I think that this is one area where the use of sympathetic reconstructions is warranted.

Is it possible to consult with everyone and cover all contingencies and concerns? Most likely, no. But I think a careful and extensive documentation could act as a failsafe. Technologically, we are better prepared to do this than we have been in the past.

Are there formal guidelines and procedures? I am not aware of any. I’d be interested in any information on that topic. I do think that it is a discussion that needs to happen, especially in view of the increasing presence of more diverse materials in collections.


JH: When considering the future or lack of future for an object I believe that objectivity has only a limited value. Yes, we can predict the survival of a material like cellulose with some precision but without knowing what an object is for or how it is valued we cannot expect a good decision-making process. I agree with Lizz that more discussions of the principles and process of disposal and the end of value would be useful.

In the mean time, I don’t think we can say that an objects has died, only that it currently has no discernible value and we will no longer care for it.

​Follow @LJaneHenderson, @OriginalLizz and @Conservators_uk, and get involved in the discussion with the hashtag #loveconservation.

[i] Items that are damaged or deteriorated beyond the museum’s ability to repair. There may be items that are damaged beyond the museum’s ability to repair them and therefore are unable to be used. Such items may be considered for disposal. Things to consider: Is the item beyond repair? What would be the cost of conserving/repairing the item? Is the cost of conserving and repairing the item within the resources of the museum? Is another owner, such as a specialist or enthusiasts’ group better able to use or repair the item?

Lead image: Carrie Willis featured in the Telegraph for restoring an 18th Century Delftware puzzle jug smashed into over 60 pieces at Ipswich's Christchurch Mansion


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David Leigh - Sep 2016, Monday 12:24pm

This discussion appears to overlook how the object came into the conservator's hands. Somebody - curator, custodian,owner, etc - must have submitted it to the conservator. They must have had a reason. The conservator will have understood, accepted and documented that reason before further assessing it for possible future work. In considering whether to proceed with a difficult, expensive or hopeless procedure the conservator is surely obliged to have a conversation with whoever commissioned the work. It will rarely be the conservator's decision to make, at least not alone.
Incidentally I think the notion of life or death for an object is fanciful. Presumably the next question will be about suitable funeral arrangements! But it has produced an intriguing discussion.

Jane Henderson - Oct 2016, Tuesday 04:22pm

The actual prompt for the discussion was an object that came for conservation because the owner (a museum) had attempted to dispose of it based on condition but had been told it was so important it must be saved. As a teaching facility, we have a great deal of time and resources to offer to the object, far more than any commercial situation. However, even with this context, the student treating the object questioned whether it had any future: 'This significance assessment is making me feel like Pontius Pilate. It's like signing a death warrant for an innocent object'. Of course, the owner's view is critical; in this case, it was pretty much: 'Is there anything you can do to save this? If so please do it'. This created a space to ask about: how and who to consult; the conservators role; whether there are any absolute ethical issues; and if anyone had a formal procedure or guidelines that they could share.


The views expressed in these comments are the views of the individual and do not reflect the views of The Institute of Conservation. Any comments containing inappropriate language or copyright material will be removed.

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