Conservation Documentation in Digital Form: 
A Dialogue about the Issues
By Angelica Zander Rudenstine and Timothy P. Whalen

In an important moment for the conservation field, representatives from over a dozen major museums in the United States and the United Kingdom—including museum directors, curators, conservators, and scientists (see meeting participants)—convened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on April 27, 2006, for a frank dialogue regarding the current state of conservation documentation.

The meeting, organized by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and preceded by several years of careful planning and discussion,1 provided a unique opportunity for the leadership of major collecting institutions to reconsider the ways in which treatment and other conservation documentation are created, managed, and disseminated. The wide-ranging, daylong conversation also covered professional and public access to such documentation, as well as digital management as a preservation strategy for aging paper and media documentation.

Conservation research and treatment have historically, of course, been documented in print form, including paper files; typed, handwritten, or printed documents; and film-based images. At the New York meeting, the participants grappled with both the problems and the opportunities posed by these existing archives and by the shift to digital forms of documentation. They considered the advisability of retrospective digitization of existing records, in addition to future digital documentation. The complex issues of access to conservation information were also considered. How, under what conditions, and when might such information be shared with professional colleagues and with members of the public? What are the primary questions of policy, of ethics, and of values involved? How will the daunting matter of costs and resource allocation be addressed?

The meeting was notable not only for the forum it provided for the sharing and comparing of experiences and priorities but also for the fact that directors, curators, conservators, and scientists from a group of significant institutions joined in devoting attention to a critical aspect of conservation work, and to the potential benefits of sharing information to enhance scholarship and learning. In his closing comments, Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum, remarked, “The very fact that we have participated with our colleagues from conservation today was important. What we have discussed could conceivably—and probably should—become institutional priorities, and what is really left is for us to come up with the will and the resources to begin the process.”

Pinpointing the Issues

Since the 1980s, many museums have established digital collections management systems. In addition to facilitating the day-to-day tracking and management of institutional holdings, these automated systems enable museums to better collect and present information to the public via the Web and other means. But conservation information typically is not yet incorporated into these internal management systems—either because it has not been digitized at all, or because it is held in stand-alone databases or files—and it is therefore likely to be increasingly isolated and unavailable for study.

The objective of the New York meeting was to focus on principles, values, priorities, and levels of access, as well as on the methodologies that would be required if such information is to usefully serve the evolving needs of the conservation and scholarly communities. An effort was made to pinpoint salient issues that could serve as a framework for broader exchange with the wider community of colleagues in the European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere in the world.

Months in advance of the meeting, participating institutions were provided with a series of questions for their curators, conservators, scientists, and administrators to consider in internal discussions. The questions addressed the status of digital conservation record keeping; accessibility of records; integration with other collection information; future plans; and related concerns. Summaries of these internal deliberations were circulated prior to the April meeting so that all participants arrived with a clear understanding of the attitudes and experience of the other institutions.2 During the discussion, many of the same topics were addressed in greater detail.

Paper versus digital record keeping: There was general agreement that while paper records are still considered the formal archival record by many, most museums are now to some degree engaged in digitizing. All participants considered this activity inevitable and desirable, while conceding that it was unlikely that digital records would entirely replace paper in the foreseeable future. There is a growing concern about the preservation of historic, often ephemeral conservation records (including color photographs, transparencies, and radiographs), some of which are disappearing rapidly. While the cost of retrospective digitization of such records is clearly daunting, it was generally acknowledged that selective digitization of deteriorating materials must be considered for preservation purposes.

Information access: There was considerable consensus that sharing information with professional colleagues (conservators, curators, university-based art historians, scientists, and other scholars) was one of the most striking potential benefits of digital record keeping, encouraging collaboration in solving problems, offering greater understanding of works of art (their conservation history, materials, and techniques), and deepening many aspects of scholarship and other productive developments in the field. At the same time, it was recognized that there would be major intellectual issues involved; these include the risk of misinterpretation or misuse of raw, uninterpreted data. A consensus was reached that information would need to be carefully explicated in order to avoid such risks and to be useful as well as accessible. Institutional sensitivities regarding treatment policies and histories were also raised. There was substantial, though not unanimous, agreement that on balance, wider professional knowledge of such histories should be welcome, since it could further understanding and generate healthy, informed discussion of current or earlier methodologies. Intellectual property questions were also discussed, especially as they relate to proprietary authorship and to works in progress that are destined for publication but not yet adequately advanced for dissemination.

The extent of access to conservation documentation that would be desirable for professional colleagues was seen by most participants to be different in kind from what might be appropriate for (or sought by) members of the general public. Whereas the 2000 UK Freedom of Information Act mandates a considerable level of access to those who request information about works of art held in public collections, this law does not appear to have prompted an increase in requests for conservation information from the public, which remain rare (as reported by Tate, the National Gallery in London, and the British Museum). Some participants stated that museum visitors tend to be more interested in conservation information while they are actually looking at works of art in the galleries, and that audioguides, podcasts, or Web sites might offer the best delivery vehicles for such audiences.

Management of information: Internal management of documentation is the critical prerequisite for dissemination and sharing. The institutions represented at the April meeting are at very different stages of digitization, some barely beginning, others far advanced. The Philadelphia Museum is perhaps the closest to integrating its conservation records with the rest of its automated information holdings. It has developed a conservation database that will be integrated with its collection management system, allowing it to transfer information between the two systems. The museum is also developing enhancements that will include a flexible survey screen and that will allow it to import information from other databases.

First Steps

Central to the discussions at the meeting was a high level of commitment to the digitization and ultimate sharing of conservation information. There was general agreement that the primary challenge for the museum community would be the formulation of a coordinated effort to create new digital assets that are readily able to interface with those of other institutions. The development of a universal conservation data model that could be integrated with any existing collections management systems was proposed as a desirable—indeed an essential—first step. Retrospective conversion of earlier conservation records was also discussed, and in view of the scope and costs associated with such an effort, it was suggested that in-house indices might be created as an alternative to digitizing entire files in those cases where immediate preservation was not urgent. Other means of sharing information, and other categories of data to be shared, were proposed, including the development of online listings of current conservation research, thereby fostering potential collaborations and preventing duplication of effort.

Immediate next steps: In order to make progress in implementing some of the ideas that emerged during the meeting, some pilot projects were proposed for consideration:

1. A survey of museum needs for optimal creation and management of documentation in digital form could form the basis of discussions between conservators and software developers.

2. A survey of the state of conservation documentation in key European museums could help to identify important priorities for attention and funding.

3. A study of best practice methodologies for the digitization of media such as X-rays and for the digitization of existing handwritten documentation would be useful.

4. An experimental pilot project that would integrate the complete conservation history of one or two important works of art into the collections information already available on an existing Web site or other online system would be a useful test. Public response to such a model integration could generate feedback for broader consideration of the pros and cons of various levels of public access to conservation material.

As the meeting concluded, unanimous agreement was expressed that the digitization of conservation documentation and the sharing of such information among conservators, scientists, museum curators, art historians, and other scholars was highly desirable and of vital importance. It was also acknowledged that while public access to such information ultimately would be important, the immediate priority should be the development of mechanisms for the exchange of information among professionals, and that effecting change in institutional practice would be essential if these emerging priorities were to be adequately recognized and served.

It was further agreed that the broader museum community throughout the world must be brought into this discussion as soon as possible. To that end, it was agreed that additional meetings and consultations should be organized and the results broadly disseminated, so that collective progress on a number of fronts might be made.

Angelica Zander Rudenstine is program officer for Museums and Art Conservation at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Timothy P. Whalen is director of the Getty Conservation Institute.


1 A smaller exploratory gathering was convened in May 2003 by the Mellon Foundation, working with staff members of the Getty Trust, to begin a consideration of these issues.

2 Complete transcriptions of these summaries can be found on the Andrew W. Mellon Web site.

Page published in the Getty website