Go back to article: Challenges of conservation: working objects

Conserving significance

Objects are more than just material things – they have meaning (significance) for people. Assessment and conservation of significance depends on consultation and on understanding and weighting the many possible views of those with an interest in an object. The curator may see a machine as a rare example of a particular technical development, the scientist may be interested in the types of alloy used, the visitor may have memories of similar machines in use, and may have nostalgic feelings about motion, smell and sound. Any one object may garner a range of reactions so carry a range of values – which together constitute its significance (de la Torre, 2002 and 2013; Clavir, 2002).

Values may shift – an example often used is the vintage car which starts life as a valued family vehicle then passes through a stage of being considered redundant and fit only for the scrap-heap, before being lovingly rescued and proudly displayed at specialist rallies (Appadurai, 1986). Values may conflict – a Stradivarius violin may be valued by a historian for its unaltered state (so never played), whereas a violinist may yearn to discover how it feels when played and to hear its tone, or to play an instrument which was played by great violinists in the past (Barclay, 2005; Lamb, 2007).

Another element in the significance of an object is what is termed its ‘biography’. This is compounded of factors such as the makers’ intention (what was it for, why was it made and why was it made in the way that it was); what has happened to it since it was made; its associations with people and/or events; what it means to people now (and what it may mean in the future). So an object’s significance can be seen as the accretion of everything that has happened to it physically (including repairs and conservation) and the accumulation of different values (Peers, 1999; Marshall and Gosden, 1999; Joy, 2009).

Not only will significance influence conservation decisions but a decision may need to be made about which stage of an object's life is most important and so should be prioritised during conservation. Should the evidence of use be retained or should conservation aim to reinstate an earlier appearance? Like the example of the vintage car, some historic houses are conserved and displayed as in their prime with rewoven textiles and fresh gilding; by contrast others are presented as in their decline with worn carpets and faded paintwork.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160608/007