Reflections on the 2018 IIC Congress in Turin

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Image of Gaël de Guichen. Courtesy of the author

By Gaël de Guichen


In the 1980s, when the term “preventive conservation” started to be used more widely, for a large majority of professionals preventive conservation focused mainly on light and climate control, as illustrated by Garry Thomson’s book The Museum Environment.

For many years, climate control was THE MAIN TOPIC. We spoke only of relative humidity in the conferences we attended. In Turin, out of the 15 sessions there were 4 sessions on climate, and 35% of the speakers touched on relative humidity in their talks. So, the importance of climate seems to remain a MAJOR concern in preventive conservation and for this community.

I feel we are misguided. In 2018, there are preventive conservation factors that are much more important and that have a far greater impact on collections than relative humidity. You are probably shocked by what I am saying, so allow me to explain.

Earlier in my career I had the opportunity to go on several missions with Harold Plenderleith and also with Garry Thomson. I taught climate control in more than 45 countries. You could say I was a fan of climate control. Why? Because there was evidence–dare I say dramatic evidence–of damage caused by environmental conditions regardless of the material (except gold, of course).

Consequently, I think I have established the most exceptional, illustrative and awful collection of images from around the world showing damage caused by climate to single objects and sometimes to entire collections. A good part of this collection was given to me by my students. This collection of images is now available on ICCROM’s website.

Why were there so many disasters in the 1970s and the 1980s? There are 4 main reasons:

1. The famous 60/60 rule proposed by (and conceived for the environmental conditions of) the United Kingdom, which was blindly applied in other countries.
2. The widespread introduction of air conditioning in museums using the 60/60 rule, which was easy for architects and engineers to accommodate.
3. The traditional belief that an object had to “breathe” which led to unsealed showcases (personally, despite long and patient observation, I never caught Mona Lisa breathing, but probably she does it at night).
4. The rise in travelling exhibitions for which objects where being transported in regular packing cases and sent thousands of kilometres away in whichever season, latitude or longitude.

50 years later, after having observed and documented so much destruction, we have learned a little from the errors of the past and taken adequate measures:

1. We have understood that if collections found in Delhi, Beijing, Paris or Timbuktu have reached us still in “good” condition after many centuries, it is because people cared about them and because they received ongoing maintenance–not because the 60/60 UK rule was applied.
2. We now use air conditioning in a sensitive way. At this conference, we have seen how, in the superb storage areas in Osaka, better and more stable environmental conditions were achieved (and $30,000 USD saved annually) by switching the system off for 6 months out of the year.
3. We are asking companies to produce showcases that are well sealed, providing a more passive form of stable conditions.
4. We have established requirements to avoid damage during temporary exhibitions. Methods of transport have been improved, and the industry recognizes the value of providing microclimates.

I have three pieces of evidence to support the fact that damage caused by climate is an extremely rare occurrence now:

1. Insurance companies recognize that while improper environmental conditions used to be the main cause of damage, it has now been surpassed by damage during handling before the opening of an exhibition.
2. It is difficult for institutions to show me a single object damaged by climate while in storage, even when I ask the person who has been in charge of the storage for years.
3. The rate of acquisition of examples of damaged objects into my image collection is dropping in a disastrous way.

Of course, objects are sensitive to incorrect values or changes in relative humidity and temperature. However, I have to say that nearly all the damage I have observed and documented in the past 20 years is caused by pretty incredible professional errors; most are caused by a total lack of common sense.

For these reasons I think that today environmental conditions should be given much less importance in training programs and in papers accepted for conferences. Personally, I have stopped teaching climate control.

When we speak of preventive conservation, other factors such as decay, risks, aggressors, causes of decay, agents of deterioration (call them what you want) should be taken into serious consideration; such factors include modern materials, pest control, biological damage, new products and especially mass conservation.

This includes conservation in storage. There are over 55,000 storage areas in the world–55,000 storage areas in which are kept about 90% of the collections. In 60% of those, the collections are sometimes in disastrous condition, hidden from the public and sometimes even from the staff. Storage is the first place where preventive conservation should be applied. It could be an interesting theme for a future IIC conference.


The last session of the 2018 IIC Congress in Turin was called “Perspectives”. During the post-session discussion, I made a comment that I would like to place here, for the record and to reach IIC members who could not attend the conference.

I think in order to plan for the future it is important to look back and to understand where we are now. In the mid-80s, we started to use a new term in the field of conservation–preventive conservation.

In 1992, in recognition of this change, the Association des Restaurateurs d’Art et d’Archéologie de Formation Universitaire (ARAAFU) organized the first international conference, titled “Conservation Preventive”, which took place at the UNESCO building in Paris, in French, with published preprints.

Two years later, IIC confirmed this change by organizing a conference called “Preventive Conservation” which took place in Ottawa (1994), in English, with published preprints.

Two years later a third conference called “Actas del coloquio internacional sobre la conservacion preventiva de bienes culturales” took place in Vigo, Spain in 1996, with published preprints.

These three consecutive conferences on the same topic indicated a clear and important worldwide change in the profession, not only for museum conservators but also for curators, for registrars, for librarians, for archivists, for architects, for archaeologists and for administrators.

At the time, many words were used to identify the various actions of conservation including words like restoration, preservation, prevention and collection care, to which were added direct conservation, remedial conservation, passive conservation, planned conservation, indirect conservation, preventive care, curative conservation, active conservation and preventive conservation. All these terms can be found in the preprints of the Ottawa conference. I think you can also find “preventative” conservation, illustrating the imagination of conservators. Twelve of those phrases are applicable to both movable and immovable cultural property, whereas only one—collection care—is applicable to movable items only.

As one can imagine, total confusion ensued at international conferences, and where there was simultaneous translation, the interpreters “s’arrachaient les cheveux” (tore their hair out).

Now, twenty-four years later at this IIC conference on preventive conservation, have we clarified our ideas? YES & NO.

NO, if one listened to some of the presentations and read what was projected on the screen during these five days of sessions. If a definition of the theme of this conference had been made in the announcement two years ago it would have avoided a series of serious confusions which have emerged during these discussions. A simple illustration of this confusion: for some of us “collection care” includes preventive conservation while for others it is the reverse!

YES, because in 2004 an international group of professionals representing a variety of conservation disciplines (one of whom was the secretary-general of IIC) worked for three years to identify the main terms that constitute conservation. They found not thirteen actions but three, and they created a glossary in which each of these three actions was given a term and defined in five lines of text that are easily understood even by non-specialists.

This terminology was presented to the 36,000 members of ICOM who ratified it in an official vote, with 93% in favour, during the general assembly in Shanghai on 12 November 2010.

One year later, the European Committee for Standardization (CEN)—an organisation financed by 26 European countries and which creates standards for industry, tourism, sport, medicine, etc.—took an interest in cultural heritage and started working on our field, conservation. The technical committee, CEN/TC 346 - Conservation of Cultural Heritage, organized the Working Group 1 - General methodologies and terminology, chaired by Lorenzo Appolonia who is also chairman of The Italian Group-International Institute for Conservation (IG-IIC) and was an organizer of the IIC Turin Congress. A group of 120 colleagues, some who were certainly present at the conference, created standardized definitions for more than 200 words that we use daily in our profession. This terminology was accepted on 1 October 2011 in 26 languages and has been published as EN 15898:2011. This definition of preventive conservation is similar to the definition accepted by ICOM. It is very important to note that this terminology (as defined by both ICOM and CEN) is applicable to all fields of movable and immovable cultural heritage.

May I suggest that either IIC adopt this established terminology, or if not, that it propose a definition of preventive conservation (and other terms) to be used in its publications? Otherwise, after being one of the pioneers in 1994, the first of the class will become the last of the class.

Some people will wonder: Why is it so important to have standardized terminology? With so many possible answers, I propose six:

• Standardized terminology will help translators at international conferences.
• Standardized terminology will help librarians to classify our documents.
• Standardized terminology will help the student.
• Standardized terminology will help the researcher.
• Standardized terminology will help all of us in our profession to understand one another.
• And finally, standardized terminology will help us to engage in a productive dialogue with colleagues from other disciplines in a unified and consistent manner, which is so crucial today.

Thanks to all of you for your attention and consideration.


Gaël de Guichen is French. He began his career as the engineer in charge at the prehistoric cave of Lascaux. In 1969, he joined ICCROM where he completed his entire career dealing mainly in preventive conservation for which he lectures on climate control in more than 50 countries. He launched four major programs: one on preventive conservation, one on the development of African museums, one involving the public and one on storage reorganization. As a member of ICOM-CC he led the taskforce on terminology. Since his retirement in 2001, he serves as advisor to the director general of ICCROM and has been applying the program on storage reorganisation RE-ORG in 14 countries.

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