Commentary on Malcolm Collum: "Responsible Utilization: Balancing a Conservator's Obligations with Society's Expectations"

Speaker: Malcolm Collum- Chief Conservator, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Title: Responsible Utilization: Balancing a Conservator’s Obligations with Society’s Expectations.
Commentary by: Jennine Schweighardt, graduate student in the Seton Hall M.A. in Museum Professions program; Graduate Assistant for the IME 

During the first session of the Institute of Museum Ethics conference, Malcom Collum, Chief Conservator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and previously senior conservator at the Henry Ford Museum, addressed the subject of responsible utilization of museum collections in a presentation aptly named, Responsible Utilization.  In this presentation Collum declares a need for an objective process to decide how much an artifact should be used in its original capacity for “experiential education.” He also questions how museums can reconcile their responsibility to educate the public by using “experiential education” and preserving the object for “posterity.” Collum outlines the difficulty in making an ethical decision about artifact utilization by showing the conflict between the reasons why the public believes the mechanic artifacts should be used, and the reasons conservators want them to be operated as little as possible.

Many people without the background of a conservator are of the opinion that an artifact is still authentic even when the parts of that artifact are replaced. To illustrate this belief, Collum used the example of a 1929 Bentley Old #1 racing car. A court had declared that the authenticity of a machine, even with all its parts replaced, is as authentic as the original machine. The court believed that machines were intended to have their parts replaced and so this was expected. Collum disagrees with the court and holds that the original components of the object make it more valuable as historical records than a largely replicated operating artifact.

According to Collum, private collectors are increasingly valuing original components in machines. He cites, for examples, the fact that car auctions are now rating automobiles by authenticity and correlating value. Collum’s perspective is that, as replacements are made, the machine becomes more and more of a “replica,” rather than the actual object, lessening what it is worth.

Because the conservator’s point of view is frequently in the minority, Collum voices the concern that conservators may not be in the position to stop the restoration of a machine that they believe should remain in its original state. Collum asks rhetorically if there is a process in museums to allow those concerned about the preservation of an object’s authenticity to have as much of a say as those who support the restoration.  According to the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, it is the responsibility of the conservator to lobby for “what is best for the collection.” To perform this duty, conservators must be involved in the decision making process regarding artifact utilization; however, due to the increased desire of the public to see artifacts in operation, the input of conservators and curators has been disregarded in favor of realizing increased visitor-ship through the pull of experiential education. For a decision on the method and extent of object utilization to be objective, and therefore ethical, those determining that method should be a balanced representation of an institutions staff.

Collum recognizes that there must be some kind of compromise between employing and preserving functioning artifacts. However, he urges that if they are to be used, then we need to make sure that they are being used in a way that is least damaging to the artifact. This compromise leads to one of the key questions of Collum’s lecture: “How do we find a rational and responsible way to utilize functional artifacts without compromising our professional standards?”

To show how the Henry Ford Museum went about answering this question, Collum presented a “ranking system” that was devised by the institution in 1992. The system is a 1-4 scale which rates the artifact’s “value,” one being highest and four the lowest, based on “historical significance, rarity, institutional connections and/or monetary value.”  When choosing the ranking, how the artifact will be used should not be known. This keeps the process more objective.

Another part of the Henry Ford Museum’s decision-making process is a Collection Operations Team that includes a spokesperson from each part of the museum, achieving the balance mentioned above. All of the museum’s representatives get a chance to voice what they recognize as the risks and benefits of operating the artifact. Aspects that are taken into consideration are fragility, disturbance, transportation, the environment, security, reliability, whether it “promotes the institution,” if it is educational, and if it is entertaining. The curator brings a proposal on usage, written by the Collection Operations Team, to the Collection Committee, who votes to make a final determination.

Conservators will often support the use of an artifact if it allows them to learn more about the object’s condition. Objects do not benefit from being used for any other justification from the conservator’s standpoint. Use is not a method of preservation, and Collum declares this theory is a myth.

Collum illustrates how the process above works by giving examples of specific vehicles, and how the Henry Ford Museum ranks them. He also discloses that the risk versus benefits analysis frequently engaged to determine the use of an artifact can be flawed. Such is the situation when the time and resources invested in the restoration of the artifact to achieve operating capability does not justify the benefits.

Collum states that in order to make ethical decisions on the use of artifacts in “experiential education,” each institution must have a process that allows for the objective analysis of the artifact, and a open discussion from all key areas of the museum that work with that object, including conservators and curators.

As an educator, I can attest to the desirability of “experiential learning,” however, my love of history and historical objects brings to the forefront a concern for the object’s longevity. It is so difficult to decide how to use an object when you are aware that any use results in damage. The process adopted by the Henry Ford Museum, and presented here by Malcom Collum, is a welcome option that assists museums in identifying an ethical decision when presented with the complexity of object utilization. I ask, however, if this method can be used with other objects in the same way, or if Mr. Collum is presenting this as a process only to be used for automobile museums?

Author’s Note: Quotations in this commentary were taken from the speaker’s conferencepaper.

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