Session 10, on the final day of Congress, brought four wonderful presentations on Churches and Cathedrals. Showcasing research from Switzerland, Denmark, and the UK, all reflected on the ethical and technical problems that arise from working in historic, religious buildings and how conservators are engaging with local communities to mitigate issues and to provide practical, workable solutions for the safekeeping of heritage. The following themes flowed throughout these four presentations, which we highly recommend viewing in full.
Firstly, sustainability of the church building, its rich collections, history, and purpose. As church attendance decreases within the UK, visitors are more often there to admire a church for its spectacular architecture, art, or history, rather than being a member of the church community. The tourist lens with which we increasingly view heritage through has particularly acute ramifications for the faithful; to separate church heritage from its original intent only serves to separate the congregation from communion with God. It is this duality that conservators working on, or in, one of the 15,742 buildings that constitute the Church of England estate, have to balance in order to best respect the original purpose of the churches; to be places of worship and to minister.
How then, do churches encourage engagement with their rich heritage, and thus with Christianity, without inadvertently turning into museums or event venues? Some churches are utilising technology to ensure that a balance is found between informative displays and spiritual requirements, whilst the cathedral and churches building division is actively developing guiding principles that will endeavour to set future conservation within the missional context of the church.
Secondly, the vital need for community buy-in and clear communication. In previous centuries, churches were the focal point of communities. Milestones of life were marked in places of worship and churches acted as collective societal memory boxes. To this day, the fabric of churches can provide an initial link to a shared, local identity expressed through memorials or objects of remembrance. For churches, these offer the opportunity to engage with visitors who may not identify as being religious, and if objects of memorialisation are separated from their community then their value as a mnemonic device is lost. Likewise, if objects of liturgical significance are moved to museums due to security fears or collections care concerns, then the value they offer as a means of spiritual communion is also altered. The goals of the community, the church, and preservation experts must be clearly communicated, and education of those who use and care for these churches and cathedrals is necessary.
A third issue is the previous and present interventions or use of these historic churches that can be categorised as ‘well-meaning but detrimental’. Damage to paintings rooted in the change of religious dogma was a topic in one talk. In another, updates to a church to make a more comfortable space for worshippers resulted in damage to historic elements over time. Previous ingenuity may result in harm today, which adds to the challenge of the conservator: to honor the full past of the object, using current knowledge to amend but not erase its history. For the fascinating details of techniques utilised by the panelists, please refer to the preprints.
Fourth, the idea of spirituality of space, consecrated objects, and how this is seen within and without western religion. The relationship between the observant and an object of reverence can be very different to that of a conservator who, generally speaking, will look objectively and holistically. Repatriation is a contentious and complicated issue, but it is interesting to reflect that perspectives from Christian faith have been absent from the discussions thus far. Perhaps objects from the Christian faith were deaccessioned to a museum with a blessing, whereas sacred objects from non-western religions were looted, sold, and exhibited out of context and without proper reverence. These are very different experiences of object removal, where typically the church has been happy with the position of museum as caretaker and educator for an object with religious significance. Nevertheless, we wonder if there's the potential for the church to have a voice in the repatriation debate - as a body which understands the sacred nature of objects in a way that a secular organisation does not so easily admit.
These presentations stimulated these questions and thoughts from the three of us, but also the 150 attendees who were very engaged in the chat and question forums. It is clear that there is no one size fits all approach when addressing meaningful, historical, religious collections and buildings, and we are grateful to these four panelists and all of their collaborators for their efforts in respectfully preserving these meaningful spaces.
Tatiana Shannon is a conservation technician at Barbara Magum's Sculpture and Decorative Arts Conservation Services LLC
Stephanie Guidera is a third year graduate fellow in art conservation at SUNY Buffalo State College
Jenny Ellison is a freelance conservator, based in London, UK.