Wednesday, 20 November 2013

To what degree can change be said to increase value and significance? How far does context affect the assessment of change in heritage? By Veronica Ford

The following is the abstract of a dissertation submitted in partial fullfilment of the requirements for the degree of MA in Principles of Conservation, Institute of Archaeology, University College London 2013. 

This dissertation explores in greater depth the relationship between heritage and change and how this relates to how we present and conserve the past. Change in heritage is often viewed negatively when it causes material deterioration and the erosion of existing heritage values. However, it also has many positive facets conferring age value, aesthetic value, symbolic value and evidential value. 
Whether a change is considered valuable and how it is considered valuable will be defined by the context in which it is presented. Museums and heritage organisations guard heritage, but they also help to define how heritage is valued through their acquisition, display, interpretation and conservation of objects. This dissertation examines some of the contexts in which change is valued and look in more detail at the implications this has for conservation.

To begin with, a number of terms frequently used to describe change are defined, examined and challenged. In general, terms like ‘patina’ and ‘damage’ have either positive or negative value attached to them, but they are often used as if they were neutral. Next, change is examined in terms of the types of positive values which it may contribute, which include evidential value, symbolic value, aesthetic value and age value. Examples are drawn from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum and the National Trust. Finally the context and aims of these three institutions are examined in order to determine how and why change may be valued in particular institutional settings. 

A visual assessment of objects in the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum was carried out which assessed objects in which change or alteration was visible. This assessment looked at how far changes were explicitly viewed as positive, through the information provided about objects on their exhibition labels and online collections search. In the case of the National Trust the overall aesthetic of three houses was examined – Calke Abbey, Scotney Castle and Kedleston Hall. 

The dissertation concludes that the terms used to describe change should be used with greater caution than they already are – no changes are intrinsically positive or negative. Such a description is the product of an individual’s subjective judgement depending on their opinion about the value of the object and how the change has affected this. Whether a change is likely to be viewed as negative or positive will also depend greatly on the context as well as how well interpretive text explains change. At the V&A, with its focus on manufacturing and design, change is valued when it demonstrates an artefact’s materials and manufacturing methods. At the British Museum, which has a broader focus on world cultures, change is valued when it helps to explain the cultural use of the objects. At the National Trust, the value of change is highly dependent on the broader values of each property. At Scotney Castle, picturesque decay is triumphant. At Calke Abbey, decay is symbolic of broader trends in society and aristocratic decline. At Kedleston Hall, the aim is to display the house as it would have looked in the late 18th century and therefore change which contradicted this aesthetic is viewed negatively, whereas restoration is used extensively as a positive change. 

When contemplating future conservation treatments, it is important that the positive values of past change are recognised. Conservation should not automatically class all change as undesirable, but must consider the values ascribed to the object and the context in which it is situated. However, the fact that future changes may be desirable should not be used as an excuse to allow an object to be subject to uncontrolled change.  The impact of material change on value change is unpredictable. Therefore, the retention and enhancement of the current values of an object should be prioritised over any potential future values that change may bring.

For more information please contact Veronica Ford

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