Peter van Mensch
Towards a methodology of museology
(PhD thesis, University of Zagreb 1992)


The primary context and the museological context are defined by characteristic sets of activities. In the primary context we distinguish three functions: production, exploitation and maintenance . The maintenance function is related to the exploitation function. Maintenance ensures the continuation of the economic use of the object. Without maintenance or with minimum exercise of this function, the object is consumed (transient object). Maximum exercise of this function ensures longevity (durable object). Maintenance in the museological context is part of what has been called preservation . This function is related to the functions of research and communication, and implies the continuation of the cultural value of the object. Contrary to maintenance in the primary context we see in general a maximum exercise of this function in the museological context. Preservation implies safeguarding in the widest sense of the word, and comprises collecting, conservation, restoration, and documentation.

It should be emphasised that collecting is but one of the possibilities to safeguard objects. Museological theory should deal with collecting as a method to preserve ex situ, as well as in situ in every conceivable form. In other words, preservation should not be seen exclusively as the responsibility of museums nor as tasks to be executed within the walls of the museum building only [note 1].

Preserving for the future

Preserving objects nòw implies saving these objects for posteriority. This includes expectation that the notion of the supremacy of the 'authentic' object will apply in the future, and that future generations will thank us for our contemporary insights in passing on and preserving an interesting artefactual record representing current concerns (Wright in Wright et al. 1991: 9). Different authors have shown that it is probably not an universal need throughout time and space. The intellectual environment which has provided the essential framework for the assembly of museum collections is Renaissance Humanism (Bazin 1967). Before this period, and particularly outside its sphere of influence the vast majority of societies seem to be concept-centred rather than object-centred (Cannon-Brookes 1984; Taborsky 1982). For these societies the process of preserving objects is limited to religious use. The transmission of cultural traditions is overwhelmingly oral.

The decision to preserve objects involves not only present day use, it is usually a decision which implies benefits for future generations. What are tomorrow's needs? The 1984 conference of ICOFOM, devoted to the theory of collecting, attempted to get answers to the question what to preserve now for tomorrow? No answers were given as there was considerable doubt about the possibility to foresee the needs of tomorrow's museologists and public.For fear to be posthumously accused of irresponsible behaviour museums are afraid to make choices, which is one of the main reasons of the reluctance or even resistance in case of disposal [note 2]. "The first duty of a museum is to itself, its public, and its present. Its best functioning is not necessarily served by an altruistic or self-glorifying orientation to the future", wrote G. Ellis Burcaw (Burcaw 1984).

Usually preservation in the museological context claims to last forever and despite the inevitable deterioration of objects in the care of museums, the collecting theory of 'all or nothing' still stands. Once acquired an object is to remain part of the museum holdings for ever. Several authors have expressed their opinion that "perpetuity, as a practical matter, is as inapplicable to a museum collection as it is to most other aspects of human achievement" (Washburn 1984). Walden even argues that a painting in a museum is more threatened than a picture in a private home (Walden 1985: 12-14). The threat come mainly from 'a hypertrophic professionalism', as she calls it. It has been argued that at present paintings in the best condition are those that escaped the great restoration programmes of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Beck & Daley 1993: 127). Unfortunately, the top works suffered most.

Tomislav Sola mentions the claim of preservation for eternity the 'big lie' (in Boylan ed. 1992: 104). He adds: 'If the right to die is guaranteed to people, should not objects have the same privilege?'. Some museums of contemporary art have adopted temporary preservation as policy. The New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York), founded in 1977, concentrates on art of the last decade. Works of art older than ten years are sold. Nevertheless, the ICOM Code of professional ethics (1986) considers the claim of perpetuity as a conditio sine qua non of museum work. Consequently this code demands a strong presumption against the disposal of specimens to which a museum has assumed formal title. This approach offers little room for mistakes.

Qualifying period

It has been pointed out that the importance or insignificance of documented data can only be evaluated after a certain time interval which enable to separate substantial events from irrelevant ones, valuable data from insignificant ones. A detached and objective decision-making can be realised by retrospective preservation/collecting, i.e. by observing an 'incubation time' (Cedrenius 1984). There has been a long-standing widespread tendency for this chronological distance to creep forward (Ashworth & Turnbridge 1990: 14). In the UK, for example, the Ancient Monument Act of 1882 was framed initially for prehistoric artefacts. Protection of monuments was extended up to the arbitrary date of 1714 in 1900, and finally to buildings well into the twentieth century in the 1960s. For monuments, the Dutch Monuments Act of 1969 (revised in 1988) prescribes a qualifying period of fifty years before buildings can be declared protected monuments. In case of archives the Dutch Archives Act of 1962 gave the same period for records to be transferred to depositories. In the new act of 1993 this period has been reduced to twenty years.

In a report published in 1921 a Dutch government commission proposed to buy work of contemporary artists not before twenty years after this work of art was created or ten years after the death of the artist [note 3]. This retention period gives room for a process of 'natural selection' and creates a necessary intellectual distance. At present such attitude has serious financial consequences. If you wait too long, the work may be too expensive to buy. On the other hand recent developments in art prompt museums to buy works of art before they even are created (performances, installations).

To facilitate the process of evaluation and assessment, in modern archive administration an intermediate stage between registry and archive has been created: the selection centre, where assessment takes place. Selection centres are "intermediate records depositories, which receive, store, service, process, and provide security for records that are not sufficient active to be retained in valuable office or operating space but are too active to be retired directly to the archives or are still too valuable to be sent to the wastepaper dealer" (Angel 1984: 46). The idea of selection centre was proposed in the 1920s by the Belgian archivist C.J. Cuvelier. The first centres were established in the USA in th early 1940s. In line with the concept of selection centre Tomislav Sola proposed to establish transitional depots for museums (Sola 1984). These new structures could function as:

- temporary shelter for endangered objects (sudden donations, findings),
- 'clearing house' where museums could get objects from their collections (trade, exchange),
- repository for the surplus of objects that museums would like to keep if given the option,
- recycling facility for objects (where people could obtain renewed, restored objects that are of no interest to museums),
-facility for lending objects to interested clients (museums and private alike).

Frye (quoted in Washburn 1984) suggested another solution: the distinction between two different kinds of accessions, permanent and interim or probationary. The latter could be de-accessioned without the formal consent of the board of trustees. In this respect there is a technical and terminological distinction between acquisition and accessioning. Accessioning is the formal documentation process by which an object enters officially into a museum collection. As such it is the last step in the acquisition process. Accessioning is intended to be an irreversible action; acquisition may on a whole have a tentative character. This agrees with the distinction made by some authors between primary and secondary selection (Ennenbach 1984; Schubertova 1982; Dunger 1984). Primary selection (acquisition) involves P (or A) - M transforms; secondary selection (accessioning) relates to M-M transforms. Part of the selection process is a first scientific assessment to be followed by further research after accessioning. The objects that have been collected but not found relevant for accessioning might be kept for educational purposes.

Van der Kooi introduced a useful distinction between preservation on a macro, meso and micro level (Van der Kooi 1991). Preservation on macro level involves the 'political' weighing of the interests of a living community against the interests of its cultural (and natural) heritage. Preservation on meso level concerns the relationship with the other museological functions, i.e. the 'internal' legitimisation of selection. Preservation on micro level refers to the individual object. Primary selection relates to the macro level, while secondary selection relates to the meso and micro level of decision making.

All forms of selection concern the following basic questions:

(1) which objects are to be preserved,
(2) what part or aspect of the object is to be preserved,
(3) how should the object be preserved?

In the following paragraphs these questions will mainly be discussed on the micro level of decision making.

Which objects ?

Usually this question focuses on the processes that eventually will lead to the survival of the object. An often neglected aspect of preservation is that the decision what is to be preserved automatically includes the decision what will not be preserved. As one cynical Dutch journalist once said: 'conservationists carefully select the landscapes that will be destroyed'. English property developer Peter Palumbo developed this point of view further. Talking about architecture he proposed that all buildings over sixty years old should be automatically demolished unless some dispensation was made in the public interest. Each collection thus has some sort of 'negative collection' consisting of objects that did not 'make it', which prompted Thomas Schlereth to speak of a 'semiotics of absence' [note 4]. Unfortunately, history gives many examples of selection for deliberate and systematic destruction. One example from this century is the 'Entartete Kunst' campaign initiated by the national-socialist regime in Germany. The most recent example is the destruction of heritage in Croatia and Bosnia.

In the opinion of Stransky the criteria for selection follow from the concept of museality (see Chapter 16). Objects are selected on the basis of a rational analysis of the documentary value. To Stransky this is an objective process. The followers of 'new museology', however, advocate 'involved subjectivity' (Bellaigue 1986). To Waldisa Russio the most important selection criterion to single out objects for preservation is 'representativité'. Representativity consists of 'témoignalité' and 'documentalité'. At one side the value as authentic witness and at the other the expression of the object in a communicative context. As extra criterion Russio mentions 'fidelité': 'Il faut souvenir qua la fidelité entraine du vrai, de l'authentique au sens de rapport entre l'objet réel et son message, entre l'objet-communication et la lecture de l'homme; la fidelité n'entraine pas necessairement l'authenticité de l'objet en soi meme (un 'modèle' peut etre si vrai qu'un objet ancien et authentique, dans ce sens)' (Russio 1984: 55).

A concept similar to Russio's formed the basis of a series of six selection criteria developed by SAMDOK, the Swedish organisation that is involved with the documentation of the contemporary Swedish society. The selection of objects is based on following criteria (Rosander 1980):

This type of rationality agrees with Stransky's museality. The objects are assessed in view of their representativity for the phenomena that one wants to document.

Apart from these criteria with respect to content, museum practice may require additional technical criteria. The museums of the Smithsonian Institution include appropriateness to the existing collection(s) and the condition ('preservability') [note 5]. Limiting conditions might be: doubts about the offerer's legal title, the costs involved in purchase, transport or conservation, and the space available to accommodate it.

Documenting the present

As to active documentation of the present distinction should be made between the different types of museums. Zoological and botanical museums by definition document the present, although by the very act of preservation their collections become historical. In other words, they collect the present but their collections document the past. The same paradox hold true for art museums. In this respect it should be noted, however, that - more than in natural history museums - there is a difference between presenting and collecting. Museums of contemporary art, for example, tend to follow developments in art closer by the exhibition policy than by their acquisition policy.

Usually the discussion about 'collecting (of) today('s culture) for tomorrow('s needs)' focuses on history museums. G. Ellis Burcaw gives some reasons why museum do or should collect present day objects: for political reasons, to demonstrate progress or to re-enforce national awareness; for nostalgic reasons, as reaction to rapid change; for egotistical reasons in an attempt at immortality; as intellectual exercise to provide sources for scientific research. For obvious political reasons documenting contemporary material culture has been given much attention in the socialist countries, within and outside Europe. The former Museum fur Deutsche Geschichte (Berlin) documented daily life, emphasising the political and economic dimensions of it. To prove the progress made during the post-war period under the leadership of the communist party, the Agrarhistorisches Museum (Alt Schwerin, Germany, in the former GDR) started its programme of 'collecting' the complete interiors of houses (Schreiner 1978, Wilzki 1979). In order to document the changing housing conditions, some houses were 'collected' as examples of the feudal/capitalist period (beginning 20th century), the early socialist period (1949/50) and the contemporary period (1960). These houses are preserved in situ, respecting the typical location and relations with other buildings. The interiors can be characterised as: period setting (feudal period), reconstructed period room (1949/50) and original period room (1960). The house with the 1960 interior was acquired in the mid 1970s. The furniture and all other objects (around 2300) were taken over from the family that lived in the house and left 'untouched' in their 'natural' position. During a visit of the museum in 1989, the director, Klaus Schreiner, confidentially pointed out the house he intended to acquire in the near future. A few months later he was forced to retire and the museum had to re-define its legitimacy in view of the new political situation.

For some museums in the field of science and technology such prospective form of collecting has become common practice. In particular company museums, or museums related to a particular type of industry, make agreements with the company/industry about future preservation of objects in use. This is of particular importance since in the field of science and technology the ageing rate of objects is higher than the forming of social appreciation of their cultural value. In the world of archives this prospective approach is implemented in the form of 'records management' as pre-archival function (Evans 1984).

In the 1970s in Sweden an analysis of the acquisitions of the museums of cultural history was made. It showed that both the national and the regional museums had large gaps in their collections, both as regards subject-fields, epochs and social-groupings. Above all, the many-faceted working life of the 20th century was recognised to be poorly covered. This led to the foundation of SAMDOK (in 1977), which has since been an international standard for documenting the present. SAMDOK is a voluntary organisation for co-operation between the Swedish museums of cultural history, granted by the Swedish government. This is a favourable situation. To North American type of museums, dependent on private rather than public money, it seems to be difficult to get funds to acquire contemporary objects, apart from art. From the visitor's point of view it is foreigness that creates the museum object and thus museum visitors (and sponsors) are thought to be not interested in the familiarity of today's material culture (Burcaw 1984).

More than with retrospective collecting, the collecting of present-day artefacts gives the opportunity to make deliberate choices what aspect of the object will be preserved. As has been pointed out before, the museological concept of the object as data carrier involves three 'levels' of data. Following examples of objects that end their biography in museum collections, clearly show that the moment of collecting influences the data content of the object as document.

1 The shortest way is Prod-M. The museum acquires the object directly from the maker.
2 Somewhat longer is Prod-TD-M. The museum acquires the object through a dealer.
3 The usual way is Prod-TD-U-M. The museum acquires through the user.
4 For many old objects the usual way is Prod-TD-U-(TD)-RU-TD-M. The museums acquires through a dealer.

In contemporary art the usual way is 1 or 2. Similarly museums of applied art tend to favour the first way, rather than the third one. Social history museums, on the other hand, prefer the third option.

What part ?

'When we are collecting objects we are collecting information', writes Washburn in a provocative article in which he challenged the object-centred approach to preservation (Washburn 1984). In this article he pleads for more conscious collecting policies in view of the increasing costs of preserving. The central question in fact is 'which information' is to be preserved? As Maroevic has pointed out the initial interest is usually focused on one single level of information (Maroevic 1983). The other layers of information are often discovered only later when the object is approached and studied by other people asking other questions. In this connection Maroevic introduces the concept of museum definiteness and indefiniteness, referring to the potential and the realised information content of objects (Maroevic 1986).

Traditionally the main orientation of museography used to be to the structural properties. Recently more attention is paid to functional aspects and context. A general question is whether functionality should have the attention of museums. Museums have a strong tradition in the structural (morphological) aspects; musealisation involves de-functionalisation. Especially in historical museums, but in other museums as well, there is an increasing interest in the information 'around' objects (extrinsic information). This information is considered important since it helps to understand the documentary value of the object. In many cases the documentary value of the object does not depend on its physical properties, but on its association with persons or historical situations. More recent is the interest in the physical and conceptual context of an object. The full documentation of objects is consiered one of the main principles of the ethics of preservation. There is a tendency not only to document this information level, but also to find methods to preserve it.

In view of the concept of the museological object as referred to above it can be concluded that usually only parts of objects are preserved. Only those parts are preserved that are supposed to contain the most relevant information for the given use. The most obvious example are natural history collections. For geological collections a piece of a rock will satisfy the needs of the scientist as well as the public. For zoological collections usually the skin stands for the whole animal. Traditional taxonomy is based on features of external appearance and parts of the skeleton. Most collections of mammals and birds still consist of skins (as flat skins, as study skins or mounted) and skulls. New developments in taxonomy involved new collection policies. For exhibition purposes the skin is still sufficient, scientific research may need other parts as well.

Preservation of objects means preservation of information embodied in, and connected with, objects. Is it then necessary to preserve objects themselves or can the information be preserved in other ways? In this respect the term idealistic preservation has been introduced, as opposed to materialistic preservation (Van Mensch 1985). To some authors, like Washburn, it is not necessary to preserve objects per se in order to preserve ideas (Washburn 1984). Although rejected by others, it is not a completely new approach. In fact it is already a long standing tradition in scientific museum work to transcend from object to other media: "...the communication of a museum item and the transfer of information that item can emit to a potential user is, right from the moment of entry into the museum, slowly directed towards other carriers of information. (...) Thus, there exist in museums list of items, inventories, catalogues, card files, books and a number of other information aids which are used and developed" (Maroevic 1983: 242). Communication between museums and their public is to a great extent based on such transfer of information to other media. In this process something of the quality is lost. "Not just the quality, but also a quantity of information is lost so that, finally, information of this type often reaches the final user merely as a reminder of the knowledge that should be obtained from the object. The channels of flow are either too narrow or often they are blocked and only passable with difficulty" (Maroevic 1983: 245).

A rather eccentric position is taken by Deloche. To Deloche the concept of information is too vague, especially in case of art. Since it encompasses everything and since it is too much related to individual characterising the concept of information is too rough a tool to understand exactly the role of art. Hence Deloche's proposal to use the Kantian concept of 'scheme' indicating the very rule of construction rather than the constructed thing. In other words, a scheme, in the aesthetic meaning of the concept, is a morphological determination of information. As a consequence the real object of museum science should not be in the works of art themselves, but in the scheme for which they act as bearers and means. According to Deloche the introduction of such 'schematology', the museum stops to exist as a 'conservatory'. "The point is no more to present the works to the kaleidoscope of public opinion, but to deal with and spread schemes, identify them, evaluate their spreading power, estimate their socio-transcendant efficiency" (Deloche 1985: 116).

Mead carries the argument further by stating: "Preserving the past meticulously is a western preoccupation and a particular concern of several branches of study. If conservation were no longer a prime function of museums, these institutions would be less like a hospital for art objects. (...) The task of maintaining an art tradition is the primary concern of a community. Display and conservation are of secondary importance" (Mead 1985). Konare speaks in this respect of 'la conception africaine de la conservation': "Il était moins important de conserver l'objet, de respecter les rites, la facon de faire" (Konaré 1985: 57). He adds: '"Tant que vivait l'artisan la permanence de l'objet était assuré". As to contemporary art in the 'First World' similar views are held. It is suggested that if we want to keep the art tradition alive, the important point is not to establish museums, but to stimulate the art market.

Following this line of thought, i.e. extending conservation to the conceptual dimension, Fitch distinguishes three levels of action: the artifact itself, the person who created it, the metier or specialised skills which are generated in the very act of manufacture (Fitch 1982: 11). In this respect Philippot, referring to the field of science and technology, warns us against the fact that "what survives of the craftman's tradition [i.e. the object's conceptual identity , PvM] in the new industrial world is its practical skill, (...) but it is no more a genuine expression either of the past, or of the present. To ignore this would mean to close one's eyes on the irreversible fact that historic consciousness has broken with traditional continuity, and therefore lead to a faked expression" (Philippot 1976: 369). Part of this extended approach is the preservation of construction plans, and maintenance and operation manuals.

In art the discussion about how to preserve works of art became topical with the rise of conceptual and minimalist art. Count Guiseppe Panza di Biumo was one of the main supporters of minimalist art. He collected works of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Richard Serra, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Bruce Naumann and many others, partly in the form of working drawings with written agreements about fabricating sculpture in the future since he lacked space and funds to install the art all at once. In some agreements it was stated that only one realisation of the work could exist at any one time, though temporary exhibitions copies might be made, provided they were destroyed when the show ended. In fact Panza bought the ideas, not the object. Problems arose when he decided to sell his collection to the Guggenheim Museum (New York). Among others Judd and Andre protested emphasising that the essence of their work lies in the material conditions, not in the design (Failing 1990).

An interesting case in point is the periodical reconstruction of the main shrine of Ise, the oldest Shinto shrine of Japan (Sekino 1972). For over 1,200 years, an identical new building has been erected every twenty years on one or other of a pair of sites of similar size. The old shrine is destroyed soon after the new one is built. All parts are perfect copies, so that the original design and proportions are always retained. Other shrines were similarly maintained until the Middle Ages, when forests were still abundant in Japan and large timbers were available. According to Sekino the principle of periodical reconstruction has gradually ceased since the Momoyama Period (1568-1615). It was replaced by the principle of (partial or complete) dismantling and reassembly. According to this principle each part is carefully examined and replaced when broken or rotten. In this case the building slowly loses its original material step by step, whereas in case of the Ise shrine the material is replaced at once. In both cases preservation acts on the level of conceptual identity rather than structural identity.

In the world of archives the use of copies is more common than in the world of museums. However, respect for the intrinsic value of archival documents plays an important role in theory and practice of archive science (Daniels & Walch eds. 1984: 91-99). The 1985 conference of ICOFOM raised the question whether collecting policies of museums could be extended to substitutes. Most authors focused on copies, but the theme has a much wider scope. A copy is not simply a substitute, while a substitute is not necessarily a copy. It boils down to the degree of authenticity. As to historical collections and exhibitions phenomena can be documented by:

* authentic witness or testimony of a certain historical phenomenon;
* a more or less physically identical contemporary object;
* a modern copy;
* an abstract representation [note 6].

The second category is what Gluzinski calls 'originals in the role of substitutes' (Gluzinski 1985: 113).. In all cases the use of substitutes in preservation, research and communication is based on agreement on at least one of the three dimensions of information (conceptual, structural, functional). As such the substitute substitutes only one or at most a few aspects of the 'original'. In a similar way Miquel & Morral (1985: 128) distinguish originals as substitute (substituting the documentary value, i.e. the content of another object), and copies as substitute (substituting the physical presence of an original). Or as Stransky states: "n order to obtain the testimony, we need a witness. (..) Important is that such testimony is iconically coincident with the original phenomenon" (Stransky 1985: 99). However, as Desvallées says: in a history or anthropology museum "fact is more important than the witness that expresses it" (Desvallées 1985: 93).

How to preserve?

From an autecological point of view the conservation of individual objects should not be considered as isolated treatment. For example, afore mentioned feeling of alienation is intensified when no attention is paid to the link between the restored object and objects related to it. In this respect the whole rather than the individual object should be the frame of reference for any intervention, even for partial treatment. On the other hand, however, the simultaneous and identical treatment of a group of objects may suggest a concurrence of fairness perfection, that would seldom if ever have occurred. This emphasizes a general tendency in museological institutes to purify and telescope historic processes.

From an autecological viewpoint the primary context may be characterised with the key-words: in situ, 'living' and 'natural' arrangement . The functional and spatial structure within the primary context follows the exploitation function. The traditional museological context may be characterised with the key-words: ex situ, 'dead' and artificial arrangement . The functional and spatial structure within this context follows the research and communication functions. During a context transform the orientation of maintenance changes. The degree of change may be different. In practice we are dealing with a continuum in which we see a gradual shift from maintenance to preservation. Following model maps out the seven main 'stages' in this continuum [note 7]:

In the following we will concentrate on the in situ - ex situ dilemma.

In situ vs. ex situ

Merryman & Elsen (1987: 53-57) give a useful survey of the interests involved in the decision whether to alienate an object from its context. A similar list is given by Nooter (1975) emphasising the consequences of alienation by acquisition. Warren (1990) discusses the arguments used to defend preservation ex situ . These (six) arguments are connected with some of the interests listed by Merryman and Elsen. These interests are:

1 the specific cultural value
2 the archaeological interest
3 the integrity of the object
4 the physical safety of the object
5 the economic interest
6 the artistic interest
7 the distribution interest
8 mere retention

Artifacts can have a specific cultural value for the community concerned, for example in connection with its cultural identity. Alienation is considered unethical. Excavation means the destruction of archaeological evidence, mainly the evidence that has been called 'context information'. There is an old saying in archaeology: 'a resource should not be used until there is justifiable reason to do so'. Generally speaking an object is always part of an ensemble or artefact set. Alienation from its physical context does damage to the information value of the object as museological object , i.e. contribute to the breakdown in the scholarly value of the object and its aesthetic integrity in the case of an artistic complex. The points1-3 thus plead for preservation in situ . In this view preservation ex situ is considered unethical or at least a less preferable option (Warren 1990). Philippot, referring to the context as relevant aspect of the information value of the object, states that "the object should never be deprived of its context, if we want to avoid its becoming isolated and 'musealisized', segregated from life. The recognition of the value of the whole and the context, leads logically to the principle that every object should, whenever possible, be conserved in situ if one wants to save the full value of the whole and of the parts" (Philippot 1970: 371; see also Feilden 1979: 34). He speaks of creative integration .

Points 4-6 can be used to two sides. They may be used to prove the importance of in situ preservation, but at the same time they may indicate a positive effect of alienation. In case of functional degradation of an object maintenance usually is neglected. In order to safe the object it might be wise to remove it. But storage in a museum is not always a guarantee for survival. For some objects functional preservation (be it with adaptive modifications) in situ seems to be a better solution. As some objects have an important extrinsic economic value it is important to decide who may profit from it. Often in situ preservation is seen as possibility for underdeveloped areas to cash in cultural (and natural) resources as economic assets.

The preservation of works of art within the community in which they were created may serve as important contribution to the development of the artistic expression of the community concerned. But at the same time removal from its original social context will make the object available as source of inspiration of artists in other communities. This brings us to point 7, which is of course an argument for ex situ preservation. The last argument mentioned by Merryman & Elsen is in fact not a rational argument, neither a positive approach to preservation. It refers to the hoarding instinct found among some collectors, and unfortunately among some museums too. This kind of behaviour is considered highly unethical.

There seems to be a tendency of a merging of the primary and museological contexts, i.e. a shift in the direction of possibility 2 and 3. This trend has been described as 'the musealisation of society and the socialisation of the museum'. Following Hermann Lübbe, Jan Vaessen uses the term 'museality' in this respect (Vaessen 1986). This tendency is connected with a growing interest in contemporary collection. The merging of primary context and museological context is also a key concept in 'new museology'. Tomislav Sola (among others) uses the term 'living museum' (Sola 1984: 61). This term is not related to the American concept of 'living history', but is related to the concept of ecomuseum . It has, however, a much wider connotation.

Stransky pointed at the theoretical differentiation between preserving in situ and preserving in fondo (Stransky 1972). In case of preserving in situ the object is preserved as 'element of the original reality', while in the case of a museum, where objects are brought together, 'a new reality is created' (the collection). In situ preservation is, according to Stransky, limited in its possibility of expression. The historical and social connections remain undemonstrated and thus additional activities are necessary to compensate. A collection allows not just a wider and more dynamic documentation of the phenomenon, but at the same time its form of presentation can communicate that which cannot be directly communicated by in situ preservation. A collection represents a higher level of documentation. Stransky 's theoretical considerations refer to preserved objects, objects that have undergone the transform from primary to museological context (in this case seen as conceptual context). The specific aim of ecomuseums is the 'refuse of museification': 'every landscape, every house, every artefact becomes -where it stands -an instrument for knowledge as well as a written book, a stimulus to pursue researching at home and outside' (Bellaigue 1984: 76). This option is referred to as stage 1 and 2 in the continuum mentioned above. It has been described as dynamic preservation.

Preservation of artefact sets

One of the key-words in modern museum development seems to be contextualisation. Museums attach increasing importance to the original physical settings of objects. There appears to be a shift from an object oriented to a context oriented approach in preservation policies. The phenomenon itself is, of course, not new. Especially folk-life museums have a long tradition in this respect. But contextualisation acquired new momentum in recent years in connection with the growing interest in 'Alltagsgeschichte' and in particular the housing conditions as part of it.

Respect for the integrity of the physical settings of objects seems to be the preservationist's answer to the dilemma of alienating individual objects from their meaningful context. But, as usual, each solution creates its own problems. One of these problems concerns the quality of this physical setting as potential source for research and communication, i.e. its authenticity. Apart from some publications about open air museums and historic houses, little work has been done on the theoretical aspects of context-oriented preservation [note 8].

In modern archive administration the 'principle of pertinence' is rejected. According to this principle archives should be arranged in terms of their subject content, regardless of their provenance and original order. The principles applied in modern archives are: the 'principle of provenance' (German: Provenienzprinzip) and the 'principle of respect for archival structure' (German: Strukturprinzip) [note 9]. According to the first principle records (archives) of the same provenance must not be mixed up with those of any other provenance. This principle is frequently referred to as respect de fonds. According to the second principle the methodology used in archival operations should reflect the varying forms and structures of the records (archives) and their administrative and functional contents. In general, archives of a single provenance should retain the arrangement established by the creating agency, institution or organisation in order to preserve existing relationships and reference numbers ('registry principle', German: Registraturprinzip).

In architecture too, there is a growing concern for context. The approach is, however, different from the principles mentioned for archives. One of the main differences is of course the fact that buildings usually are preserved in situ. Nevertheless we see in the history of the care for our architectural heritage a gradual shift from the care for individual buildings through the concern of the relationship between the building and its environment to the preservation of the 'townscape'. Speaking of buildings Fitch (1976) gives a list of possibilities for protecting the historic patrimony qua scale and profundity of intervention. As to scale of intervention he lists in descending order of physical magnitude:

1 entire historic towns
2 historic districts
3 historic building complexes
4 individual buildings
a in situ
b relocated on new sites
c relocated in groups (open air museums)
5 building fragments

At first, contextual preservation aimed at the safeguarding of the general image. Later more attention was being paid to the structure of the build environment and preservation became directed towards building complexes, districts or entire towns/villages.

The Agrarhistorisches Museum (Alt-Schwerin, Germany) applied the principles of modern archive administration in a museum context (Schreiner 1978, Wilzki 1979). One may wonder whether such approach fulfil the promise. There is in the field of museology a problem that prevents a strict policy as developed in modern archive administration and monuments. Apart from the size of the objects concerned, it is the diversity of the material. Each material requires its own climate for example. The deterioration rate is different and consequently the appearance of the artefacts changes at different rates.

According to the synecological approach importance is attached to the integrity of the composition, arrangement and dynamism of an artefact set. The synecological approach does not necessarily ask for the preservation of complete object clusters. More importance is attributed to the integrity of the composition. In this respect the next themes seem to be relevant:

1 the problem of re-arrangement
2 the problem of completion
3 the problem of substitution
4 the problem of decomposition
5 the problem of weeding


The structural identity of an artefact set involves the individual components but also their interrelationships. Each component is characterised by its spatial ('stand') and functional ('niche') position. Re-arranging the components influences the information value of the whole. The re- installation of artefact sets in museum exhibitions may involve slight - or even important - changes in the arrangement. Ford (1984) uses the term 'internal editing of collections', which concept he relates to the recognition of research priorities of immediate concern without ignoring the future potential of the collection as a whole.


In archive administration the concept of 'closed record group' is used for a 'natural' entity of records that may not be enlarged. In archaeology the term 'closed find' is used. As to household interiors, workshops, etc. the question arises whether the composition could be improved by adding objects from different provenance. Private art collections usually have a characteristic structure reflecting the personal view of the collector. If this private collection is presented to a museum - or made a museum itself - the problem is how to develop a collecting policy. Should one respect the integrity of the present composition (the collection as data carrier)?

Respect for the integrity of an object cluster (collection, etc. may on the other hand mean re-integration of objects which have been misplaced, have strayed from or have been removed from their original place or have been intentionally alienated from their original object cluster. Re-integration is the restoration of the original cohesion and arrangement of an object cluster. Schneider considers such endeavour, for example, as one of the main tasks of the museum Egyptologist.


Can lost components be replaced by substitutes? [note 10]. When substitutes are used, should they remain recognisable as such? Can worn or deteriorated components be replaced? While composing, the Moravian composer Janacek used to walk up and down from his piano to his writing-desk. As a result the carpet showed conspicuous traces of wear. When his house (in Brno, Czech Republic) was turned into a museum, the original worn carpet was replaced by a 'better' one. As such the source value of the interior as a whole decreased.


Very often natural accumulated object clusters fall to pieces in the course of time. When, for example, an university laboratory rationalises its management, archives, documents, instruments and other objects are de-accessioned without regard to the cohesion and historical constitution of their furnishing. The most picturesque objects are kept as souvenirs, while large quantities of obsolete objects are either taken to the refuse dump or to a museum. Similar things happen to house-interiors after the death of the last inhabitant. For this phenomenon Gogelein introduced the term decomposition (Gogelein 1980: 183). Later, Nijhoff suggested to use the term fragmentation (Nijhof 1987, see note 7).

Losche and Walston (1982: 36) give an example from the Abelam people of Papua New Guinea. Many museums throughout the world have, in their collections and on display objects related to male initiations into a spirit cult. When exhibited, these carvings are usually aesthetically displayed, isolated and incomplete, because only part of the structure that is constructed is kept for future use. Once the initiation is finished, most of the more perishable material is discarded (and thus not collected by visiting anthropologists). What remains is only part of the original artefact set.

Apart from the pre-musealisation processes the accessioning process itself also involves the danger of decomposition. Traditionally museums have different departments. Usually new acquisitions are distributed among the relevant departments. For example, until recently at the Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam old frames have been removed from their paintings. The paintings were subsequently allocated to the department of paintings, while the frames went to the department of sculpture. In natural history museums similar problems arise with the new tendency to ecological sampling. In the museum the objects are stored according to taxonomy, not according to locality. This means that samples have to be split up, through which the physical cohesion gets lost and accordingly only may be reconstructed with help of the registration.


When a natural or artificial collection has been acquired the components are very often evaluated in order to determine their possible disposal. Usually this appraisal is based on the individual qualities or informational value of the components, in other words: based on an autecological approach. From a synecological approach there can be no weeding: the artefact set has to be considered as a whole. The approach one adopts depends on the status of the collection as a whole, either as balanced aesthetic composition or as historical document.


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1 This approach differs from Stránský's concept of the theory of museum selection, which emphasizes the connection between selection and intellectual as well as physical alienation from the primary context. However, Stránský's concept of selection based on the identification of museality can very well be combined with a broader notion of preservation. >back<

2 In this respect it is interesting to note that disposal was not discussed in the papers presented at the ICOFOM Leiden 1984 conference. >back<

3 Report of the Rijkscommissie van Advies inzake Reorganisatie van het Museumwezen hier te Lande [The national Advisory Committee on the Reorganistion of Museums in this Country]. >back<

4 In a paper presented at the conference 'Breaking new grounds' (Leicester 1990). >back<

5 Report on a collections policy and management study ("CPM report"), Smithsonian Institution, Washington 1977. >back<

6 With regard to abstract representations Tkac (1986: table 1) mentions: texticum (text), exacticum (graph), and symbolicum (symbolic representation). >back<

7 This typology of possibilities was first published in Van Mensch 1984. Schreiner (1987) gives a similar list, repeated in Schreiner 1989. This list is based upon Benes 1981. See also Tsuruta (1984) who gives a similar list of 'stage'. P. Nijhof (in Op zoek naar ons industrieel verleden 2. Haarlem 1987) gives a survey of possibilities with regard to industrial heritage. His list is very similar to the one given in the present chapter, adding 'fragmentation' as possibility between 6 and 7. >back<

8 See, for example, Alexander 1964, Fleming 1972, Giguere 1983, Parr 1963, Schlereth 1980. In 'historic preservation', the preservation of the architectural environment, context oriented preservation has attracted more attention (for example, Fitch 1982). >back<

9 Terms and definitions borrowed from the Dictionary of archival terminology (1984). Comparable references are found in Hofmann 1979 (for example p. 94). The principle of provenance first enunciated in regulations issued by Guizot, French Minister of Public Instruction, in 1839. The principle was made more precise by the Prussian State Archives in 1881, by which occasion also the Registraturprinzip was formulated (Schellenberg 1984) >back<

10 Hujer (1986: 59) advocates the use of copies and reconstructions, especially "für die Darstellung des Wohnens unterdrückter Klassen und Schichten (...) da sie in den Museen nicht ausreichend zur Verfügung stehen". She adds: "Die Authentizität des Dargestellten kann erreicht werden durch den Hinweis auf die Rekonstruktion nach einer bestimmten Quelle". >back<