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Strategies for Studying Multiple Meanings in Conservation Research

Jan Marontate


This article examines recent scholarship in cultural sociology on ways of studying diverse (and sometimes incommensurable) value systems and the relevance of this scholarship for contemporary art conservation research and theory. The objective is not to establish normative principles for what to preserve or how to conserve artistic works. The paper examines how diverse value systems and multiple meanings of contemporary art might be taken into account in conservation research.  

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  • 1  The paper draws on the author's current research on debates and innovative approaches in internati (...)
  • 2  The examination of material culture for insights into the values and practices of societies was a (...)

1Long the chasse gardée of art historians, research about 'the meaning' of objects and cultural heritage sites has become an active area of inquiry in the field of conservation.1  In recent years conservators have become increasingly involved with empirical research about ways to preserve the integrity of artistic and historic works that respect their symbolic and socio-cultural significance using what social scientists call 'mixed methods'. Seeking insights for planning interventions they may study records of the creator's intent in published and unpublished texts, conduct interviews with artists, architects or other authorities, critically analyse archival or published documents about the historical contexts of the work's origins and of subsequent transformations, and they may even conduct ethnographic fieldwork, for example in studios or factories of material manufacturers. Physical examination of material objects provides 'hard' or objective data about materials and techniques but is also another potentially rich source of qualitative information about socio-cultural values and practices that may shed light on 'the meaning' of the work.2

2Conservation researchers often find in these investigations that artistic and historical works have many meanings that may be difficult to parse for use in decisions about the care of works (Clavir 2001). When findings yield multiple interpretations or opinions conflict, conservators face troubling challenges. If the meanings for creators, collectors and publics differ, whose opinion prevails?  If creators, experts or the public change their views over time, which viewpoint is the most legitimate—the values they held in the past or their current beliefs? What happens when curators, hands-on conservators, conservation scientists and other categories of experts fail to reach consensus about which meaning should take precedence? How can conservators take into account different historical contexts and changing interpretations over time?

3This paper examines scholarship associated with pragmatic approaches in French cultural sociology on ways of studying diverse (and sometimes competing) value systems and considers the relevance of this scholarship for conservation research. The objective is not to establish normative principles for what to preserve or how to conserve artistic or historical works. The paper examines how diverse value systems and multiple meanings of artistic or cultural heritage can be studied and explores ways of taking the polysemy (that is, multiple meanings) of works into account in conservation research.

4The paper begins with a brief reflection on the interplay of symbolic and material dimensions as challenges for research on the meanings of art works in sociological and conservation research traditions. Then, it will present examples of sociological studies that explore how value systems frame the 'meaning' or socio-cultural significance of a work of art, with consequences to the physical transformation of the art work itself (focusing on Actor Network theorist Madeline Akrich's provocative analysis of the transformation of an altarpiece in Beaune and Dario Gamboni's work on the destruction of art). Next, the paper examines an innovative theoretical and methodological framework for analysing value systems proposed by Nathalie Heinich based on a study of evaluation criteria used by cultural heritage officials in France and work by other French sociologists on strategies for analysing value systems. The paper concludes with a critical analysis of the potential uses of these sociological approaches in conservation research, drawing on the author's empirical studies of debates in international conservation networks.

Meanings and materiality: sociological and conservation research perspectives

5Scholars seeking to understand the meaning(s) of material culture confront the fundamental questions about the relationship between things and the values people attribute to things. Although conservation researchers and sociologists may undertake research using similar data collection techniques (like interviews, surveys, archival research or fieldwork) and they may share interests in their investigations of cultural or artistic heritage, their ultimate goals and fundamental research questions are likely to differ radically (Heinich 1998, 2009a).

  • 3  Foundational texts of importance for developments in cultural sociology and sociology of the arts (...)

6Unlike scholars affiliated with disciplines in the humanities (such as art history, philosophy of aesthetics or art criticism), historically sociologists have tended to focus on the social processes and conditions that provide frameworks for assessing the value of things. The emphasis on contexts often seem to disregard the characteristics of a particular art work or historic artefact, seeking instead to identify patterns of social behaviour or external causes for the valuation of material culture (Zolberg 1989). In the social sciences, there is a longstanding resistance to the notion that social meanings and cultural practices can be reduced to material determinants, but some sociologists adopt the extreme viewpoint that reality is socially constructed. The so-called externalist approaches seek insights about social inequalities, political and economic forces, status or class distinctions and other extra-aesthetic considerations. The tendency of sociologists to disregard the content and form of material culture has been challenged in recent years; however, the influence of externalist approaches continues to characterize much sociological research related to the arts and cultural heritage.3 The emphasis on the centrality of social frameworks for the creation of meaning differs from the approach taken by humanists who traditionally focused on aesthetic properties or scientific content that are considered 'internal' to the phenomena under study. Over the past few decades, however, some social scientists have argued that the ontological distinction between human and non-human is counter-productive for the study of society, among them actor-network theorists (Latour 1997, 2005; Law and Mol 2006). By taking material culture seriously, scholars working in varied perspectives have proposed that things have the capacity to authorize or prevent action. Objects and technologies thus serve as affordances, a term coined in cognitive psychology (Gibson 1979) that has been adopted by other social scientists to simultaneously recognize the active engagement of both human and non-human elements in processes that shape cognition, affect and action (DeNora 2003). An important consequence is that some social scientists have begun to take more interest in the both – the symbolism and the material qualities of artistic and historic works in their investigations of social practices and cultural values. At the same time, scholars with roots in the humanities have increasingly begun recognize the importance of considering social or cultural factors.

  • 4  Although approaches varied depending on the classification of the works (with different approaches (...)
  • 5  The terms “time-based media”, “variable media” and “contingent objects” are used by conservators a (...)

7Trends in conservation research have followed a different path to the recognition of the need to study both tangible and intangible dimensions of cultural heritage. While sociologists in the past tended to dismiss the importance of the materiality of 'things' for understanding culture, conservators focussed heavily on physical traces (objects, buildings, artefacts and so forth) as records of cultural values and practices. Professional standards for conservation consolidated during the twentieth century were premised on the notion that preservation of cultural heritage should give priority to material dimensions of works.4 Researchers adopted 'scientific' methods of analysis and treatment with the goal of preserving the physical integrity of objects, artefacts and sites. Particularly in the case of art collections, reverence for the object in its original state at the moment of creation was enshrined in codes of ethics established by professional associations. (The care of objects kept for ethnographic or historic significance might also involve preservation traces of their use as features that attested to their authenticity as mnemonic devices.) Consequently, when interventions cannot be avoided, modern conservation practitioners promote reversible treatments and often favour interventions that clearly demarcate the treatment from traces of the creator's (or user's) hand. The awareness that every act of restoration is an act of interpretation has further strengthened the arguments for restraint. There is a deep fear of introducing anachronisms (van de Wetering 1997). However, many contemporary creative practices make reverence for the material dimensions of cultural heritage debatable or simply impossible to respect, for example in the case of artworks in time-based media (Buskirk 2003; Corzo 1999; Depocas et al. 2003; Hummelen 2008; Hummelen and Scholte 2004; Hummelen and Sillé 1999;, Schädler-Saub and Weyer 2010; Scholte and Wharton 2011).5 Even works that are relatively conventional may challenge institutionalized practices aimed at protecting the 'original object' from change, for example, in cases where multiple meanings and uses have accrued over time (Brajer and Haslund 2009; Henault 2008).

Cultural heritage works as dispositifs for the study of meaning-making in action

8Evaluations of the significance of historic or artistic works change over time and re-definitions of the meaning of the works may result in physical transformations of the work itself. This section considers studies by two scholars about art works that have undergone physical transformations and have had multiple meanings for different publics. In these studies, the art work serves as what French philosopher Michel Foucault called a dispositif (a concept frequently translated into English as 'apparatus') or, loosely put, a vantage point that provides a way of capturing the interplay of discourses, institutions and systems of relationships that exercise power and generate meanings in interactions.  The notion has been put into broader use in studies of the multiple factors and actors in networks that involve people and things.

9In a case study of the history of the reception The Last Judgement, an altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1445–1450), sociologist Madeleine Akrich (1986) traces successive re-definitions in the nineteenth and twentieth century, from historic cult object, to aesthetic work, to chef-d'oeuvre by a major painter, to a Michelin-starred tourist destination. Akrich begins her investigation by examining the narrative presented by tourist guidebooks of the re-discovery of an apparently forgotten work by a Flemish renaissance master now in the museum of the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, the site of a former hospital in Burgundy wine country. She critically examines the historical account on the basis of other documents. For example, according to a book published in 1875, the altarpiece was an object of religious devotion covered with a dense layer of dust when, in 1836, a passing art connoisseur visiting the region recognized it as work of art worthy of admiration. In fact, Akrich found publications that pre-dated the visitor's 'discovery' had already mentioned the existence of a work of artistic merit in the hospital and may have inspired the visit by the art lover. A stream of art critics from Germany, France and Belgium made their way to Beaune to view the work during the nineteenth century. Disputes arose regarding attributions since the work was unsigned, with some authorities arguing vehemently in favour of Van Eyck. Interest in the altarpiece was heightened by the enhanced appreciation for Northern Renaissance painting during the period. Art critics, religious leaders, politicians, entrepreneurs, journalists and other stakeholders offered conflicting views about the proper disposition of the work. In the 1870s, the altarpiece was sawed in half and taken to Paris for extensive restoration work that prompted further controversy. The extent of the interventions and in-painting worried art connoisseurs and critics. The altarpiece was subsequently exhibited at the 1878 Paris World's Fair (l'Exposition universelle), an event that enhanced its prestige and economic value. Disputes arose about what to do with the altarpiece (and the former hospital). Who should benefit from its newfound celebrity? Would selling it disrespect the original donor, the Catholic Church or be considered unpatriotic?  Disputes simmered for decades and finally, in the early 1970s, proponents of economic development in the region cemented a plan to exhibit the disassembled altarpiece in a climate-controlled room divorced from its religious or moral functions for public visitors touring Burgundy.

10Akrich concludes her analysis with the observation that in order to understand how art achieves notoriety it is necessary to trace what she calls a 'sociogram' of everything that was necessary to make it possible for the object to exist and for a work to achieve recognition as something meaningful for society – the human protagonists, their projects, changing contexts and the features of the object itself. Her goal is not to champion a particular decision as the last judgement (a word play on a scene depicted on the altarpiece) but to recognize the complex interplay of human and nonhuman elements in social processes that confer meanings on works of art without dismissing the possibility of future judgements.

  • 6  Gamboni is best known as an art historian but his research on the destruction of art draws on and (...)

11While Akrich's study highlighted the processes associated with changing evaluations of the significance of the Beaune altarpiece, its purposeful re-definition as a work of art (rather than an historic artefact) and the deliberate physical transformation of the Beaune altarpiece to suit economic objectives, Dario Gamboni studied acts of vandalism and iconoclasm in European art.6  Gamboni maintains that even acts that may appear gratuitous can engender a sort of dialogue, changing the character, context and material presentation of the affected work, and providing insights into how art takes on meaning. In his view "works of art are rarely –though not never– meant to be degraded or destroyed. It follows that attacks generally represent a break in the intended communication [pattern] or a departure from the 'normal' attitudes and modes of communication..." (Gamboni 1997: 11). He used acts of aggression as observation points to study the plurality of attitudes and relations that exist around art. Even relatively unfocussed cases of destruction such as making room for new roads or melting down statues for munitions in wartime can yield information about society and value systems.

12Gamboni 's first research in this area was a study of a 1980 outdoor exhibition of modern sculpture in Bienne, Switzerland, which had a very high rate of damage. Forty-seven artworks, over half of the total, were wilfully damaged or totally destroyed and numerous other works of public art in the town were attacked during the same period (Gamboni 1983a, 1983b, 1997). This damage was surprising given the fact that contemporary art shows had been held in the city for over twenty-five years without incident. There were no simple explanations for the choice of targets since the affected works covered a broad range of aesthetic approaches. Even relatively conventional works were damaged, such as beheaded female nudes by sculptor Hans Aeschlacher. Gamboni looked at the events leading up to the show. He proposed that the publicized conflicts among the organizers of the show, and the reports of large expenditures on the arts in this city of skilled labourers badly hit by rising unemployment had set the stage for widespread anger and rejection. Then he looked at the show itself that had been installed in a public park making the regular park users (many of them unemployed workers) a captive audience. In the exhibition, only numbers and the artists' names identified the works making purchase of a hard-to-find exhibition catalogue necessary for informed viewing. In a case-by-case study, he found many different explanations and motivations for rejection of specific works, based on different views of morality, ethics, aesthetics and so forth. For example, the display of nude sculptures, a mundane occurrence for art professionals, was surprising and even offensive to some members of the general public. As well the reception of works varied according to the techniques and materials used. Works made of expensive materials, which displayed technical skills of the type valued in industry suffered less damage than pieces made using less conventional processes or materials, perhaps due to the anger of unemployed workers at the use of public funds to subsidize what they saw as poor craftsmanship.

13One particular case drew a great deal of publicity – the destruction of an installation by Gerald Minkoff called Video Piece. It was destroyed by order of the town's chief gardener who was taken to court and asked to pay a fine. The work consisted of television sets that had been painted and then partly buried in the ground in a pattern. The pattern simulated the way to write 'I see' in Braille (the tactile writing system developed for blind readers). The pattern could only be perceived from an aerial view making the work inaccessible to the blind, or most viewers without air transportation for that matter (even sighted viewers who knew Braille). The gardener maintained his innocence, claiming he had mistaken the work for garbage. Finally, when ordered by the judge to pay the artist damages, the gardener countered by putting an advertisement in the paper asking for donations of old TV sets with the idea of replacing the work himself – heaping insult onto injury – by implying that anyone could remake this work of art.

14Gamboni continued to conduct research on many other cases of destruction of art (Gamboni 1997). Through this work, he demonstrates that acts of aggression are acts of communication too and using them as observation points allows researchers to grasp the plurality of attitudes and relations existing around art, including conflicts that arise out of different views of morality, ethics, aesthetics and other ideologies.

15Unlike conservators who may seek to identify a single predominant meaning (or function) of a work in order to determine a course of practical action for a treatment strategy, Akrich and Gamboni emphasize that the multiple meanings of a work of art for different protagonists over time in specific socio-historic contexts can be sources of rich insights about social dynamics and cultural values. This appreciation of the polysemy of cultural works does not solve the problems that multiple meanings present in decision-making about conservation treatments but it does point to the potential interest of retaining some indications of the transformations of a work's meaning over time.

Studying the uses of evaluation criteria to reach consensus

16Of course, pragmatic considerations make it necessary for cultural heritage professionals to find ways to reach consensus in order to undertake treatments. French sociologist Nathalie Heinich proposed an innovative framework for analysis of evaluation criteria in a study of the work of officials responsible for designating additions to the inventory of cultural heritage in France (Heinich 2009b). In addition to undertaking extensive documentary research on the history and regulations governing the inventory she conducted fieldwork using ethnographic methods associated with pragmatic sociology in France with an emphasis on how rather than why heritage specialists reached agreement. She accompanied specialists on site visits, observed them in meetings, interviewed them and photographed them at work.

17Heinich proposed a typology of criteria used by the cultural heritage specialists she observed and distinguished four main categories: univocal prescribed criteria, ambivalent prescribed criteria, latent criteria and one proscribed criterion. Prescribed criteria are determined by the official directives or policies and fall into two main categories: univocal or ambivalent. Univocal prescribed criteria have only one meaning. (Examples of questions related to this group of criteria include: Are the methods of assessment coherent with official methods? Is there documentary evidence to support claims? Can a firm date be established?  Is it an original or a copy? Is it in good condition?). Ambivalent prescribed criteria take on different meanings depending on the underlying logic for collecting and preserving the work or site as cultural heritage. Rarity may be either a positive or a negative feature depending on whether its value resides in its singularity or unique qualities or because it represents something generic or typical. (For example, if specialists are considering the designation of a typical farm from a region, then unusual features can be considered detrimental.) Latent criteria are not explicitly endorsed or rejected and are invoked occasionally in the assessment (for example, the ease of access to a building). Latent criteria are not used to override prescribed criteria but can be introduced in deliberations. Finally, Heinich observed that there is one proscribed criterion; aesthetic judgements of beauty were treated by the specialists as illegitimate and overly subjective.

18Heinich studied how specialists used the evaluation criteria and began to develop what she calls the axiology of heritage (axiologie du patrimoine) or system of values that serve as a repertoire for experts in negotiations about judgements concerning the merit and meaning(s) of a cultural object or site. She analysed the fundamental values underlying the criteria used to make value judgements and identified different families of values that she calls value registers (Heinich 2010-2011: 122-124). The value registers refer to different types of rationales used to justify positions. Heinich makes an observation some conservation researchers may find discomfiting:  in her view "art and aesthetics seem to be very marginal issues" for cultural heritage specialists. She argues that the adoption of scientific methods in the administration of cultural heritage with the systematic application of criteria in assessments has dramatically expanded the range of cultural works considered worthy of preservation (Heinich 2010-2011: 119). Heinich analyses the interplay of different evaluation criteria in a complex hierarchical classification scheme. She identifies a dozen different value registers that are relevant for cultural heritage evaluations that she then groups into five families of values:  authenticity, ancientness (length of the bond to the origin), rarity, beauty and signification (or the capacity to convey a meaning). Her classification scheme concludes at a more general level with two value realms (or regimes) that must be considered in order to understand the ways evaluation criteria are used to make judgements about the worth or meaning of an artistic or historic work:  the singularity realm, and the community realm. To illustrate the meaning of the value realms she returns to the notion of rarity, a quality that is ambivalent, with a positive meaning in the regime of singularity but negative in the community realm where typicality is prized. Heinich proposes that

19"This whole set of affordances, criteria, values, value registers and value realms constitutes what might be called the ‘axiology of cultural heritage’; in other words, the system of values proper to this very special domain of our common culture" (Heinich 2010-2011: 125).

20Although her empirical work focused on designation rather than care or preservation, Heinich's examination of evaluation practices of cultural heritage professionals provides an example of a pragmatic approach to studying how the meanings of cultural works are identified and a strategy for analysing the processes through which consensus is reached.

Conflicting interpretations and forms of justification in disputes

21Whether or not Heinich's detailed typology of criteria, value registers and regimes applies to practices outside of the specific national and institutional contexts of her study of French officials working on the state inventory of cultural heritage is a question that conservation researchers may wish to consider. The experts Heinich observed were all working with the same prescribed criteria in the same national context, within a single administrative framework, and had similar educational backgrounds. There is, however, considerable variation in the mission and constraints associated with institutional frameworks that shape contemporary working environments for conservators today. Conservation projects are under increasing scrutiny by diverse stakeholders.  Discussions about the meanings of specific works may occur simultaneously in a variety of different local, national and international contexts.  As well, curators, hands-on conservators, conservation scientists and other experts involved in conservation initiatives have very diverse educational backgrounds and training.  Art historians may value different features of a particular work than conservators or technical experts.

22Heinich observed ways specialists use varied criteria to research consensus about the meaning or value of cultural works, but her work builds on a framework developed by sociologists Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot (2006) to study how groups with irreconcilable differences involved in conflict reach a sense of justice through appeals to principles about what is worthwhile for society. They identified seven modes of justification used in arguments:  justifications based on market worth (short-term monetary costs), on industrial criteria (efficiency, reliability, long term planning goals), civic worth (collective welfare, solidarity, public good), on domestic worth (esteem, reputation, local heritage etc.), on inspirational values (creativity), on public opinion (renown) and on environmentalism (health, uniqueness, ecological worth).

23The typology developed by Boltanski and Thévenot provides an analytic tool for studying processes through which groups with conflicting value systems resolve the disputes. In some dispute resolutions, a particular set of values championed by one protagonist may prevail (such as short-term market worth over long-term economic goals).  In other disputes, consensus may be reached by finding a third criterion that opponents agree is more important than the rationales they used in their initial arguments (for example, in choosing a solution that favours public welfare over different types of economic arguments).

24The typology provides a conceptual framework well-suited to cross-cultural comparisons too. Thévenot and other colleagues applied it in comparative research on French and American modes of justification in disputes about the conservation of environment (Thévenot and Moody 2000). In their case studies, their arguments about alternative visions of the meaning of the environment varied, as did the basis for the claims proposed by protagonists supporting different points of view. The researchers found that the American notion of preservation of the natural environment as patrimony or heritage was individualistic and tended to emphasize the notion of private property rights, while in France, they found that the notion of environmental preservation as patrimony was explicitly not about private property but about shared, community rights. According to them, the differences are grounded in very different traditions of political culture and its interface with economics in society. In the U.S., market evaluations were often combined with civic arguments on a local level or in connection with individual rights, whereas claims based primarily on short-term market values had less influence in France. In France, the defence of environmental heritage on the basis of civic worth was more commonly combined with ‘technocratic’ arguments (relying on technical expertise and the logic of long-term planning or efficiency).  

25This theoretical framework and methodological strategy for analysis of the justifications and systems of values underlying disagreements has the potential to open rich avenues of investigation by providing a conceptual basis for enlarging the scope of conservation research.  

Value systems in conservation networks

26Conservation researchers are well aware of need to take different interpretations of works into account when designing treatment strategies, and routinely gather information about artist's intent and the reception of works by publics or other stakeholders.  The work of Thévenot suggests an area of investigation that is less commonly explored in public discourse about the care of cultural heritage:  differences in ways value systems are used by people involved with the designation and care of cultural works.

27Efforts to develop professional standards and codes of ethics in the field of conservation have promoted consensus and solidarity within the profession. Although disputes and controversies do occur, participants in international conservation organizations and projects tend to focus on shared understandings about best practices rather than highlight differences. The quest for agreement about intellectual frameworks (at least in public presentations) may be taken as an expression of collegiality and professionalism. At international meetings, an emphasis on shared interests and approaches enhances possibilities for the development of shared conceptual agendas and the circulation of practical solutions to shared problems. For example, in technical investigations if a chemical treatment strategy that delays degradation of a particular painting medium used by Picasso is found in one museum laboratory, it will likely be of interest to researchers responsible for the care of similar works by the same artist in other collections.

28When value judgments must be made about which aspects of a polysemic work are worth preserving, conservators may be called upon to make difficult choices that sacrifice some elements. Objects and sites that have undergone liberal reconstructions or contemporary art works in time-based media may require decision-makers to choose between alternative interpretations of elements to preserve. Comparative research on regional, national or institutional differences in the use of criteria or patterns of justification could enhance understanding of patterns and priorities in different contexts. Some research has been undertaken that recognizes disciplinary differences and the impact of the value systems associated with different areas of expertise, although here again the emphasis has been on finding common ground for agreement rather than beginning with an analysis of the basis for competing interpretations, as the sociological studies presented above propose.  For example, in 1990s the "Conservation of Modern Art" project in the Netherlands grew out of specific concerns raised by a conflict between curator Marianne Brouwer of the Kröller-Müller Museum and a free-lance conservator over the treatment of a wall painting conceived by Sol LeWitt, which was covered with dirty fingerprints. The curator suggested that the wall simply be repainted, since in her view the artwork itself is in the form of written instructions of the concept provided by the artist.  The work had already been executed by others, not by the artist himself.  The conservator objected, pointing out that total repainting violated the most basic principles of conservation ethics.  She consulted other curators and found that contemporary art museums were in a quandary about how to approach the myriad preservation issues raised by new art works (Marontate 1997).  The project and several others were launched subsequently with the goal of specifically including participants with diverse disciplinary backgrounds and perspectives (such as conservation scientists trained in chemistry, curators with art history backgrounds, philosophers of aesthetics, hands-on conservators, artists and various other areas of expertise).  Although the project clearly acknowledged the different perspectives of participants, the findings stressed common understanding of challenges presented by new forms of artistic heritage (Hummelen and Sillé 1998).

29The project served as a basis for an international collaboration of museum professionals in five countries on the conservation of contemporary installation art that sought to develop methodologies for investigating complex time-based media works (Scholte and Wharton 2011).  Here, other differences became apparent, notably in cultural attitudes towards ways decisions are made and what constitutes an acceptable level of agreement. General cultural expectations need to be taken into account.  Some patterns of communication at the meeting hinted at differences along national lines.  For example, at meetings the team the delegates from Spain tended to spend time together. Was this because they were more comfortable with a shared language, shared tastes or familiar colleagues? When queried they pointed out that the international meetings offered rare opportunities for them to converse, since their home institutions fell under the authority of different government agencies in charge of distinctive ethno-linguistic cultural areas in Spain. Later, some of the same Spanish conservators (representing diverse regional cultural institutions within their country) questioned the emphasis that the Dutch coordinators of a training session placed on conformity and consensus. "Why can't we agree to disagree?" Analysts working in the traditions of French pragmatic sociology might be tempted to study the rationales for the long history of consensus-based policymaking (known as the Polder Model) in the Netherlands and the persistence of distinctive ethno-linguistic cultural regions in Spain as possible influences on divergent interpretations of what constitutes an acceptable level of agreement amongst conservators.

Concluding Remarks

30How can these sociological studies enhance approaches for studying works with multiple meanings in conservation research? Heinich, Gamboni, Boltanski and Thévenot propose potentially useful conceptual frameworks and methodological strategies for deepening analysis of meaning-making activities. Their works treats polysemy as a rich source of information about how cultural works and humans interact in networks. They provide models that encourage analysis of different (and sometimes incommensurable) value systems.  They do not pass judgment on which one they prefer, maintaining a neutral stance that is nonetheless engaged with the specific features of the phenomena they study (unlike sociological work that focuses primarily on external factors).

31Conservation researchers may find these examples of pragmatic sociological research useful for inspiring new directions for the studies of meaning-making, raising questions about how meanings come into being and how protagonists make judgments. What criteria are used to evaluate the meanings of cultural objects and sites? What are the implicit and explicit logics that inform decisions about the fundamental 'meaning(s)' of artistic and historic works?  How are interpretations of meaning used to determine aspects of work to be protected and preserved? One objective of conservation research that these sociological studies leave purposefully unresolved is the question of how to judge the 'best' choice in a conservation strategy.  The insights from these sociological works could however serve to inspire reflexivity and a clearer understanding of ways of thinking about the underlying values that come into play in the assessment of successful or unsuccessful preservation initiatives.  These approaches provide avenues for enhancing critical analysis of the complex interplay of the material practices, social values, politics, economics, aesthetics and other factors that shape and are shaped by historic and artistic works.

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1  The paper draws on the author's current research on debates and innovative approaches in international art and cultural heritage conservation initiatives supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

2  The examination of material culture for insights into the values and practices of societies was a longstanding practice in ethnographic and anthropological research but it wasn't until the 1960s that social scientists in North America began to actively promote systematic strategies for integrating the use of 'physical traces' (which they termed accretion and erosion measures) to gather information about social values and behaviours in empirical research methodologies using 'mixed methods'. (Webb  et al. 1969)

3  Foundational texts of importance for developments in cultural sociology and sociology of the arts do offer many other conceptual tools that are potentially of great interest for conservation researchers (see for example, Bourdieu 1966, 1979, 1980. 1993; Becker 2008 (1982)). However, a detailed consideration of debates about how to connect theory with empirical methodologies at the heart of much theoretical work would require a longer initiation into ontological and epistemological issues within the discipline of sociology that cannot be undertaken here.

4  Although approaches varied depending on the classification of the works (with different approaches for example for the conservation of aesthetic objects and ethnographic artefacts (Hoeniger 1999, Clavir 2002).

5  The terms “time-based media”, “variable media” and “contingent objects” are used by conservators and curators to refer to a variety of types of works and practices such as digital media and electronic documents (based on software, hardware and internet protocols that rapidly become obsolete), works that use ephemeral materials as well as performance or interactive works and other creative practices for which a material object may not be the principal record of the creative act.

6  Gamboni is best known as an art historian but his research on the destruction of art draws on and contributes to insights of a group of sociologists of art and philosophers of sciences (notably Georges Canguilhem) that were influential. He was in close contact with some actor network theorists during the period of his studies at the l'École des hautes études en sciences sociales in France in the 1990s.

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Electronic reference

Jan Marontate, « Strategies for Studying Multiple Meanings in Conservation Research »CeROArt [Online], HS | 2013, Online since 30 October 2013, connection on 25 October 2020. URL: ; DOI :

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About the author

Jan Marontate

Jan Marontate, Hon. B.A. (York U.), M.Sc. (U. Montréal) and Ph.D. (U. Montréal) held a Canada Research Chair in Technology and Culture before joining the faculty at Simon Fraser University (Canada). One of her current research projects examines trans-national, interdisciplinary networks concerned with new strategies for the preservation of cultural heritage in cultural institutions, in particular works created using time-based media. School of Communication K9671, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, BC, V5A 1S6, Canada. Email:

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Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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