Conservation and Preserving Cultural Significance: Notes from a lecture and 11 questions to think about

Last week I attended a lecture by Dr. Miriam Clavir at the University of Toronto titled, “Conservation and Preserving Cultural Significance.” – A lecture which raised lots of intriguing questions about value, conservation, and cultural heritage.

The following are some of my (spare) notes from the lecture. Do take special note (pun unintended) of the questions at the end of the post – of all my notes, those are the most important (in my humble opinion).

A Conservator’s Perspective

  • Not everything can be preserved
  • Focus on the materiality of artifacts/objects of cultural significance: physical, technical, chemical, and design attributes
  • Focus on materiality brings insight into cultural use, significance, of artifacts
  • Preservation’s purposes are to prevent deterioration and the potential for damage, as well as the potential for cultural misrepresentation/misunderstanding
  • Preservation vs. Access
  • Conservation as a social process, not just a technical process

Trend in “collecting institutions” toward collaborative relationships, especially among conservators and curators.


  • Different dimensions of meaning include:
    evidence of class structure; value aesthetics; materiality/physicality; materials; focus on identity
  • Not just knowledge-based meaning, but also emotional, artistic/formal/tactile, experiential, and identity meanings

Trend toward including considerations of cultural significance in the preservation and treatment of materials/artifacts.


  1. Who decides what is worth preserving?
  2. What is the purpose of conservation?
  3. Why don’t conservators consult with originators or creator societies/groups to ensure accurate treatment according to the values of the creator groups?
  4. Just because an artifact is in a museum, does it need to be preserved by a museum?
  5. How is the meaning or the life of an object conveyed to those removed from its original purpose/use?
  6. How far can conservators go to preserve the life, not just the existence, of an artifact?
  7. What are the tensions between serving a present population vs. a future population? (This was not my question, but I would add serving a past population, as well)
  8. What are the realities (in general terms) regarding relationships between curators and conservators? How would an ideal curator-conservator relationship look?
  9. What are the factors of success and failure in community engagement?
  10. Who owns cultural heritage?
  11. What are you preserving if you remove cultural significance from the equation in determining the value of a cultural artifact?

Interesting Thought

Today we move differently, hold ourselves differently, than our great-grandparents did, making it much easier for us to tear clothing made during our great-grandparents’ day.


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