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Review of Conservation Skills:
Judgement, Method and Decision-Making
by Chris Caple.
Routledge, London and New York (2000).

Charles S. Rhyne
Reed College

Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites
Vol.5, No.3 (2002), pp.185-187.



All of us who teach conservation at any level are much in debt to Chris Caple for this invaluable book. In a profession noted for specialization and sub-specialties, it is remarkable to find a book by a single author that treats the entire field, clarifying the interrelationship of specialties and of conservation to closely related professions. Under a series of chapters titled (1) Perception, judgement and learning, (2) Reasons for preserving the past, (3) The nature of conservation, (4) History of conservation, (5) Conservation ethics, (6) Objects: Their recording and investigation, (7) Cleaning, (8) Stabilization, (9) Restoration, (10) In working condition, (11) Preventive conservation, (12) Decision, (13) Responsibilities, and (14) Conclusion; Caple provides a systematic, case specific introduction to the profession. Described by the author as a textbook, his book is an essential read for all students and professionals in the field. Few conservators are likely to have dealt with the immense range of object types, materials, cultures, and procedures introduced in this book, and few of us can be familiar with all of the well-chosen examples cited in each section. In addition to the wealth of examples mentioned, a detailed, step-by-step case study is presented at the end of each chapter.

          Especially noteworthy is the author's view of the conservator not only as someone devoted to the presentation of material objects, but as a professional also engaged in research, documentation, management, education, and public advocacy. I was especially pleased to see the repeated emphasis on collaboration and the recognition that "Whilst conservators are definable as the professionals involved in this process of preservation/investigation/revelation, there are many other professionals such as historians, archaeologists, museum curators, private collectors, etc. who . . . also fulfill the process of . . . preserving, investigating and revealing objects" (pp.32-33).

          Also noteworthy is the author's inclusion of the history of conservation and of non-western attitudes. Both of these demonstrate that our own current approach should not be thought of as a fixed set of rules and is clearly dependent on the particular physical conditions and cultural attitudes of Euro-American society. Thus, reflecting the increased attention to World Heritage, the book notes that "in some ancient traditional 'native' and 'Eastern' cultures the original material of the object is not considered essential, it is what the object symbolizes and what it embodies which is important. . . . In such a culture the act of restoring or copying an old object is seen as preserving it" (p.121). These important observations lead in various ways to the essential recognition that "every object contains numerous truths, making it impossible to define any one point as the true nature of the object" (p.62) and that "the conservator should not be performing an oft-repeated process . . . but should be following a reasoned judgmental process with a large number of options with many possible outcomes" (p.7).

          One of the recurring aspects of the book is the author's systematic break-down of many concepts and procedures, demonstrating that many are common to all areas of conservation and that conscious attention to each sub-concept can help to avoid hasty decisions, especially where traditional procedures have been followed routinely for years. The most original of Capel's various diagrams and charts is his "RIP balance triangle" (fig.3.2), demonstrating how every conservation procedure can be expressed as a balance of revelation, investigation, and presentation.

          Understandably, Conservation Skills is uneven in some areas, but it provides a comprehensive and orderly skeleton to which any of us may append other examples and viewpoints. There is a sixteen-page bibliography from which publications not in English seem to have been excluded. Even so, I missed several of the books I have found most useful in teaching. In exploring with students the traditional conservation practice for Japanese temples (p.121), I have found the most instructive publication Knut Einar Larsen's exemplary Architectural Preservation in Japan. In examining examples of conservators involved in public education (p.66), students have been most impresssed by the National Gallery's three model exhibition catalogues, Art in the Making. And the section on World Heritage (sect.13.3) should certainly include reference to the Burra Charter and to the Nara Document on Authenticity. Among the thirteen case studies, at least one Asian example and one from a living indigenous culture would help to inform the cultural diversity referred to by the author. For example, the chapter on responsibility might be more richly exemplified by a case study involving Australian aboriginal rock painting or African ceremonial masks, where living representatives of each culture are now often involved by law or professional practice.

          Given the comprehensive nature of this book, a section on computer-aided research would help to bring it up-to-date. With increased emphasis on non-destructive techniques and remote sensing, archaeology has emerged as one of leading disciplines in the use of computer technology for conservation research. Three-dimensional images of architecture, archaeological sites, sculpture, and other objects, that can be turned in space, allowing us to see the relationship of exterior surfaces, front and back, to each other and to interior forms, are becoming essential modes of study. In research on paintings, the most informative technique has been the superimposition of several different types of images (visible light, x-radiographs, ultraviolet light, infra-red reflectograms), allowing us to vary the strength of each and to make comparisons among these different types of information.

          Because of the rich assortment of examples described in Capel's book, the single most valuable addition would be a collection of high quality color images to allow readers to see the numerous objects descibed but not illustrated. We need to see how successfully, or not, "the cluster of 1930s cylindrical concrete grain silos in Albany, Ohio . . . were converted to form a hotel" and how the joints left visible between the cut blocks of the temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel were treated (p.164; having initially had difficulty identifying and photographing them, I am not sure they are "obvious to modern visitors" or should be). Even where the publishers provide one black-and-white illustration, frequently we need other views and details to follow the author's careful descriptions. And even if we consult the publications referred to, the printed illustrations are often inadequate for the type of careful looked needed by our students. The option of publishing a CD-ROM as part of a book or, to keep the initial price down, of making it available separately, would vastly extend the usefulness of a book such as this. Even less expensively, a companion set of high quality color images could be made available on the web - it might even increase book sales.

          Other readers will have other additions to suggest from their own teaching and research. In addition to the above-mentioned additions, there are a various slips of fact and opinion along the way. "Information on personal grooming, hygiene, diseases, diet and methods of execution can only be gained from studying human remains" (p.118; not from contemporary images?). "Cleaning describes the removal of soiling and decay products from the surface of an object" (p.90; not previous restoration). "An oil painting has little other function than to create a visual image and stimulate an idea, emotion or reaction in the viewer" (p.30; not to make money or decorate a room?). "This returned these objects to the condition in which they were originally intended to be seen" (p.63; if we want journalist to stop accusing us of claiming this, we must stop saying it).

          These are minor slips, but there is one serious misunderstanding that must be corrected, especially as it weakens Capel's otherwise praiseworthy aim to encourage collaboration and understanding of related disciplines. It is informative to see the repeated stress on the central role of hands-on training with objects, and the importance of conservation students learning from and being willing to adjust their ideas on the basis of such experience. However, the author seeks to equate objects with reality and truth and to contrast this with written documents. "Written history has become widely recognized as biased and, as such, always needs to be interpreted. Objects, however, particularly functional objects, are seen as truthful, the real thing. . . . They come down to us directly from their creators and are not translated or interpreted by any scribe" (p.13). But every man-made object, like every man-made document, accurately records a particular moment in history, dependent on its specific physical and social conditions, created for a certain purpose, based on certain ideas. Like a written certificate or theoretical treatise, all objects, even functional objects, both record a specific human condition and require interpretation to be understood. The "farm carts rusting in the vegetation of . . . York Castle Museum" (fig.2.1) express the ideas and conditions of only certain social classes at one time and place and are certainly open to our own misinterpretation. Just so, a written document or treatise at the time accurately records a particular moment, under certain physical and social conditions, and as such records a particular point of view, requiring interpretation.

          This misunderstanding appears in its most extreme form in the first chapter. "Where subjects are taught through reading and attending lectures there is little opportunity for reality testing. Written essays, which are marked and returned, are the only form of testing normally seen in arts and social-science subjects and such testing seeks only correspondence of understanding with that of the lecturer and the wider academic community rather than truly equating to reality" (p.9). No doubt there are arts and social-science classes which approximate this dismal view of things, but I am convinced that it is far from typical. I have visited many colleges and universities and am happy to report that many students are engaged in creative projects in their disciplines and that diversity of opinion is generally valued in the active, day-by-day, interchange among students and with their teachers. They test their ideas against careful reading of texts of all sorts and against careful study of other types of evidence, including works of art. Happily, this misrepresentation seems largely intended to empower conservation students in their training and careers and as such does not weaken the major contribution of the book as a whole.

          I highly recommend this book to anyone involved with conservation in any way. For each of us it provides "a reality check" for our own position in this multifaceted and evolving field.

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