The online resource for the historic environment

3.03 Introduction


“…conservation requires the ability to observe, analyse and synthesise. The conservationist should have a flexible yet pragmatic approach…”
ICOMOS Education and Training Guidelines

“Before any work begins, all the factors that make up and affect this [cultural] value must be investigated … defined [and understood]. The protection of this value will inform and determine the way solutions are conceived and implemented”
Stirling, S. 2002.

“The primary purpose of repair is to restrain the process of decay without damaging the character of buildings or monuments, altering the features which give them historic or architectural importance or unnecessarily disturbing or destroying historic fabric.”
English Heritage.

Fundamental principles of conservation are as follows and should be subsumed in any intervention planning and strategy:

  • Minimum loss of fabric
  • Minimum intervention
  • Minimum loss of authenticity
  • Reversibility
  • Absence of deceit or, honesty of intervention

As a conservation practitioner you must be able to demonstrate an understanding of the broad aims of and methods available to carryout an investigation of any cultural asset, its fabric, its defects, their causes and sources and be able to formulate a strategy for appropriate intervention. Invasive forms of investigation of fabric and structure should be avoided: this in order to protect significance.

It has been a century or more since doctors routinely cut open their patients to find out what was, or what was not, wrong: such operations often harmed the patients more than the problems they were trying to cure. It would now be unthinkable to adopt such a brutal approach… However, we continue to treat buildings in such a cavalier way…
Demaus, R.

A prime action prior to any physical investigation should involve a detailed study of documentary evidence about the asset its history and context. Such investigation may provide clues to a site’s development and history and help to focus physical investigative processes and avoid unnecessary damage to the original fabric.

As a conservation practitioner you must be able to demonstrate an ability to formulate an appropriate investigative methodology; appropriate not only to achieve the end of providing information to define significance and inform intervention strategy but also to minimally affect the historic asset its fabric and structure. You must be able to demonstrate an ability to make informed decisions about which form or method of investigation will provide the correct level of detail appropriate to the proposed works of intervention.

“Assessment and analysis of cultural significance… should inform the choice between satisfactory alternative investigative techniques.”
Stirling, S. 2002.

“A poorly understood resource [asset] cannot be conserved protected or managed effectively.”
Wood, J.

You must be able to make informed decisions about when and what type of expert advice might be necessary to provide accurate analysis and assessment of the asset and its condition.

“…a general practitioner is expected to have a wide knowledge of symptoms and possible remedies, and, though aware of the various techniques which are available, cannot be expected to carry them out: their application and interpretation is left to a specialist with expertise in that particular field.”
Demaus, R.

Part of the process of investigation must involve recording the products of the investigation process, together with any documentary evidence found and, any exposure of previously unknown elements of fabric and structure. The process of recording must synthesise and collate all information collected in order to inform future work and future generations of the results of the investigation and the effects of any intervention work. Such recorded information must be stored in easily accessible archives for access by future generations. See BS 7913: 2013 para 3.15 "record", and section 4.4 "Understanding heritage assets, historic buildings, values and significance".BS 7913: 2013 para 5.2 notes that "All interventions should be recorded to facilitate future understanding."

Where unavoidable harm is necessary what action must you take?

“Historic buildings are irreplaceable, and contain information about the past that is available from no other source. They must be treated responsibly, and the understanding that is essential to their proper treatment or conservation can only be reached by making use of the best possible information about them and by ensuring too that future generations understand what the present generation has done for their care.”
Stirling, S. 2002

Consider how and where such recorded information might be stored and what factors might influence these choices

Any historical asset is subject to decay through ageing, interaction of materials and weather and, additionally, to what has happened to it contextually and through use.
It might be observed that the primary directive of conservation is to achieve equilibrium rather than have a solution imposed for whatever reasons or values. It is the drive to achieve equilibrium, despite the pressures of use and decay that should be a prime objective of conservation. Good conservation should strive to identify an optimal solution to pressures of use and decay and, at the same time have a minimum effect on significance.

Buxton, corner column The Crescent. Note inappropriate use of plastic repair using cement based materials adversely affecting the original stone.

“…The object of conservation is to prolong the life of cultural heritage and, if possible, to clarify the artistic and historical messages therein without the loss of authenticity and meaning. Conservation is a cultural, artistic, technical and craft activity based on humanistic and scientific studies and systematic research.”
ICOMOS Education and Training Guideline (b)

“…the archaeological evidence contained in every original stone and every tool mark is of such importance that the slightest, most thoughtless interference may be the cause of irreparable loss.”
Earl, J. 2000.

Perhaps redolent of SPAB philosophy.

The conservation practitioner must recognise that an historical site or structure may have established significance as a result of various uses throughout its existence. It may be that a building conceived for one purpose has gained importance for a variety of reasons not necessarily directly related to its original use.

Identify a building of local importance in the area where you live and analyse how its importance to society has evolved through various uses and changes to its fabric and appearance.