Reflections on the psychological basis for suboptimal environmental practices in conservation

Jane Henderson
  • Journal of the Institute of Conservation, January 2018, Taylor & Francis
  • DOI: 10.1080/19455224.2017.1422777

Why do conservators use incorrect standards to protect collections in museums and galleries ?

What is it about?

The paper aims to use psychology to examine the challenges facing conservators setting targets for the protection of collections in museums, art galleries, archives, historic houses and libraries. It asks how well and how consistently does the conservation profession define damage? Understanding the complex relationships involved in defining damage is one step towards unpicking conservation's difficult relationship with ‘truth’. The paper asks if there is a perceived need to be 'class 1' and certain about the ability to halt decay that pulls the sector into ineffective decision making. The paper asks why conservators are more comfortable testing and questioning physical principles such as decay mechanisms than psychological principles such as decision making.

Why is it important?

The paper is published in a special edition dedicated to the impact of Jonathan Ashley Smith and responds to his question 'why do conservators struggle to tell it as it is'. Setting overly cautious preventive conservation targets has serious consequences. Stringent loan conditions restrict access to shared art and heritage, overly tight specifications drive up energy bills and reduce sustainability and the infrastructure of historic buildings is impacted by unnecessary control equipment. The sector has spent decades discussing how best to use the environment to protect collections yet seems to have not travelled very far from Garry Thompson's class 2 conditions from the 1980s.


Jane Henderson (Author)
Cardiff University

I remember hearing Jonathan Ashley Smith's 'Let's be honest' paper near the begining of my career and I think it either set me on a path (or confirmed one I was on) to be confident to challenge the orthodoxy if it made no sense to me. Working all my career in smaller museums and galleries I hate to see the passion and commitment to collection care being wasted on energy guzzling overly technical solutions that rarely deliver. If every museum, in temperate climates, simply had a sound roof, cleared their gutters, installed massive doormats and cloak rooms and kept front doors shut with a 'we are open' sign, I think most collections would be better protected, buildings would last longer, energy consumption would be reduced and everyone would enjoy their visit to the museum or gallery as much or more than they currently do.

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