New Media Museums Proceedings, 2022

New Conservation-Restoration of Media

Zuzana Bauerová

I am an art historian and painting conservator-restorer with a special interest in the theory and history of conservation-restoration of cultural heritage. I am also interested in different approaches of ‘decision-making processes’ in terms of institutional, methodological and professional aspects, from a historical perspective and in relation to future generations, i.e. the circumstances that affect the practice of conservation and restoration and naturally the profession of conservation and restoration (if it actually exists). Perhaps that is why the editor of this anthology invited me to write an essay on the topic of professional conservation-restoration in the context of the conclusion of the New Media Museums research project, despite the fact that I didn't take part in the project and I have to admit that I didn't follow it from the beginning. Compared to all active participants and co-investigators, I therefore have an advantage in the disadvantage that I can (perhaps) in hindsight take issue with some of its outputs, which have reached me as one of the end users through the project website1) and the recording of the international symposium.2)

In the context of the aforementioned orientation of my interests, this essay is therefore an attempt to sketch an intellectual framework for the conservation-restoration of new media in relation to the art of the moving image. My goal is to try to situate some of the interpretations that the project researchers are working with concerning conservation-restoration as a process of preservation and protection of cultural objects, as well as the profession of conservation-restoration. In order to meet this objective, I have chosen to compare the ‘traditional approaches’ to conservation and the new needs that the field of conservation of moving image art is gradually formulating (thanks also to this project). The conclusion of the essay can perhaps be taken as a partial suggestion of some possible unorthodox solutions for the next steps in our area of interest.

1. Profession – definitions, documents, institutions, rules

The most recent document defining the profession of conservator-restorer in the Czech Republic is the Document on the Profession of Conservator-Restorer from 2010.3) As stated in the justification report, its purpose is ‘to establish the basic objectives of the principles and requirements relating to the profession of conservator-restorer and to define the role of the conservator-restorer in the protection of cultural heritage in museums and galleries of the Czech Republic’ 4). It can be considered as a non-legislative framework derived from the documents of international professional organisations.5) This provides us with a certain terminological foundation and a proposal of professional principles for expert practices in the conservation-restoration of objects in cultural institutions.

However, even more than a decade after the adoption and publication of the Document, the fact remains that in the Czech environment we have not managed to precisely define the field of conservation-restoration in relation to other disciplines. Despite the activities of the European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers' Organisation (E.C.C.O.) and the accreditation procedures of some domestic and foreign universities and academies, we (and Europe as a whole) lack codified requirements for the content and scope of education for conservator-restorers in our country. These areas are characterised by numerous discussions and interdisciplinary dialogues rather than specific documents with a general international consensus on their wording.6) And while we can certainly argue over the reasons, we can probably agree that the current situation is mainly due to the wide range of materials and types of conservation-restoration objects, more or less sophisticated methodologies of approaches for specific museum, gallery or archival collections, specific situations in the protection of architectural or archaeological cultural heritage and, last but not least, specific political and social interests. The question remains, however, whether the existing conditions don't in fact determine the very nature and essence of conservation-restoration, as was the case in the past.

Almost in the same year in which the Documentary on the Profession of Conservation-Restoration was published thanks to the Association of Museums and Galleries of the Czech Republic and the Czech Committee of the ICOM, the British conservator-restorer Jonathan Ashley-Smith playfully described our profession as an adolescent.7) He presented the immaturity of preservation-restoration against the characteristic features of this developmental stage of the human individual in terms of psychology and adaptation to codified social relations in society, even making use of more 'serious evidence': for example, he pointed to the concepts that society (in the sense of society, community) connects with ideas about the profession and their activities – cleaning, purification, restoration and conservation. He referred to their origins in the 19th century, although he did not forget to add sustainability as a modern concept.

Current heritage care literature works with this historical period in which the basic framework for the professional management and care of cultural heritage was established.8) The set of values used by Alois Riegl to define the subject of (state) protection of cultural heritage in Central Europe was a philosophical and conceptual product of the Viennese School of Art History. More than sixty years later, these values were codified on the international level in the form of the Venice Charter. Its subsequent ratification in the national legislations of the ‘Western’ world ensured official preferences at national levels for the creation and subsequent support of heritage ideologies.

This has created a structure of processes and legislative and non-legislative documents often enabling manipulative decision-making by official (and other) cultural institutions and thus accommodating a certain voluntary blindness of bureaucratic procedures, including legal ones.9) We do not need to continue this simplistic and certainly unbalanced summary of the history of the implementation of values in cultural heritage with the distinctly radical David Graeber to realise the presence of a society-wide legitimisation of 'structural violence' and political manipulation in heritage care, and therefore in conservation-restoration.10) I am referring, for example, to the active role of heritage care in the interpretation of national cultural identity, its participation in the 'writing' of the official cultural narrative, but also to very specific cases of heritage care in this country and others.

Historical and contemporary discourses in state heritage care have broadened perspectives on objects of conservation, a revision of their concepts, objectives and tools. To recall just a few that had a direct influence on the conservation-restoration process, I would mention: in the Western world, the influential theory of Cesare Brandi, together with a rigid conviction in the reversibility of intervention, had to admit, under the pressure of postmodernism, that every conservation-restoration intervention is an irreversible process;11) globalisation has expanded the objects of heritage care to include intangible cultural heritage, so that heritage care privileges the term 'cultural wealth' over 'cultural heritage'; the creative social theories of 1960s French intellectuals have pushed Foucault's theories of forms of social power and Bourdieu's social games into heritage 'collective selection' and have helped to bring community participation directly into the heritage care decision-making processes.12)

And that's not all. Current proposals for ‘experimental’ conservation point to moving beyond the utopia of John Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts Movement – i.e. that it is our duty to pass on our inherited cultural heritage to future generations in the condition in which we inherited it.13) On the other hand, experimental conservation “… sees culture as an intergenerational phenomenon – as shared heritage … as something that belongs to multiple generations. This is the basis of intergenerational equality – leaving the world in a condition that allows our children to enjoy it as much as we do, which is not the same as leaving it in the state in which we found it, which is essentially impossible, because the deepest quality of existence is change.”14)

The aforementioned corrections of conceptual categories demonstrate the pushing of the boundaries of the field and essentially set the stage for “moving past the boundaries of previous experience.”15) The imaginary movement of the boundaries of the field has support in the ‘authorised heritage discourse’, which is moderated by international organisations such as UNESCO, ICOMOS, ICOM, ICCROM, and IIC, and thus ensures the establishment of new or complementary top-down priorities and approaches.16) By its very nature, it predisposes social and cultural institutions to normalisation and subsequent control.17) It is important to note that this process (which needn’t always end in the form of a law) has certain patterns and established procedures that take time and ultimately often generate even more rules, obligations and bureaucracy.18)

These are certainly not flexible processes that skilfully correspond or respond to the needs of society, conservation or a particular monument; instead, the aforementioned movement ‘beyond’ the boundaries of current practice belongs to pressing current problems and the needs of specific artistic, conservation-restoration and heritage care practice, including the demands of society, taking the form of smaller projects or targeted activities. Their specific naming of the problems in principle calls for direct accountability and immediate remedy. The actions of activists allow for flexible changes, while allowing for a certain degree of error in their positions. Such strained situations can result in new, often unorthodox approaches.19) It is important to realise that they are the hope for a particular object, field and discipline. As such, they are part of the natural life cycle and thus an expected outcome of our responsibility to ‘vague’ future generations.20)

2. From institution to object

Available information and footage indicate that the New Media Museums project is in this very stage, i.e. it is looking for recognition of the needs of moving-image objects by state cultural (and academic) institutions or their founders. I consider the setup of the project, its focus and structuring to be absolutely correct and I value its results. I understand the calls from experts in various fields for the provision of material, technological and personnel infrastructure by competent (mostly national) institutions. Considering the information above, the following are some conclusions that could in my opinion complicate the collection, preservation and conservation-restoration of the moving image.

We designate the moving image as cultural heritage and apply the canonised categories to it in order to fulfil the earlier experiences of society, which are already codified concrete categories or ‘values’ (returning to Riegl at the beginning of the essay). As such, on the basis of convincing arguments, we legitimately and rightly attempt to introduce new cultural and historical objects into our collective consciousness.21) The reasoning is in line with the priorities of the national authorities. As citizens, we want to use the existing procedures to make the state take responsibility for the care of this new kind of cultural heritage (as it is currently interpreted).

We therefore act as we have been taught and as the state administration tries to convince us: we see institutional support as a guarantee for the preservation and protection of cultural objects and therefore expect state investment: “In reality, without government funding, the existence of intergenerational preservation of … heritage would hardly be conceivable.”22) We see the collection and preservation of moving-image objects or collections as a hedge against their destruction, against them falling into obscurity or not being preserved for future generations.

But to what extent are we willing to adapt the perception and needs of the moving image to this bureaucratic system? Are we ready to apply to moving-image works the interpretation of cultural heritage as an immutable relic of the past? In the interest of aestheticising historical value, are we ready to apply the ‘aesthetics of end’ to moving-image works, which are essentially the product of experimentation, or “the most common type of creative expression” (see Matěj Strnad's article)? Do we want to bring new media under institutional protection without changing the existing standardisation and control mechanisms and without the possibility of flexible responses to other needs that will surely arise in connection with their collection and preservation?

Or is a procedure free of institutional and state mediation more acceptable in order to preserve the material essence of the moving image? Are we sufficiently informed about the risks and potential losses? Do we know what rights and what obligations a current or future owner should have towards the property? In which parts of its management should it enter the decision-making process as part of its preservation, protection and, naturally, presentation? As such, what principles or ethical rules should be followed in the management of the moving image? This thinking represents a major intellectual shift in heritage care. It also directly affects conservation-restoration in the full breadth of its meaning, i.e. its process of preservation and conservation, but also the profession. Similar to the case of architectural cultural heritage, within the framework of which we are now considering, for example, ‘experimental conservation’, I see the integration of the moving image (i.e. objects as defined today) into the system of its musealisation as a challenge in the form of identifying new knowledge relevant to this task: “… the expanded object enables the expansion of the intellectual framework of cultural heritage, which in turn enables the existence of the object as an object of heritage care.”23) The conservation-restoration intervention into the material substance of a cultural moving-image work reflects current social interactions, i.e. it is a reflection of the system of contemporary everyday social relations. The understanding of the legitimacy of the protection of a cultural object is also anchored here.

3. (Time-based) media (art) conservator

While I do not wish to challenge the role of technical equipment and technological competence in the moving image, I believe that its preservation is not strictly a technical or infrastructural problem. Its solution does not involve better technologies (provided internally by a specific institution or by a service provider, perhaps a specialised 'hub' or 'lab'). After all, if we were to accept the arguments for prioritising the technical problem, we would admit that we are abandoning the moving-image works to further (often political or power) machinations and further purposeful use/misuse, and exposing them to ever greater dependence on financial resources.

Technically speaking, we are speaking about a ‘reproducible medium’, but from the point of view of its sustainability we have to deal mainly with the generational loss of the qualities of the work itself, i.e. with philosophical-social issues (in the sense of Walter Benjamin's grasp of originality) and, to a large extent, also with objects that are economic entities.24) The sustainability of time-limited media in terms of material and content (including media that are 'only' algorithms of information) cannot be ‘recorded' in the classical historically verified way. Nor can they be accommodated by the form of (buck-passing) resilience used in recent years to cover various conservation interventions in architecture (especially in development projects).

In the context of provocative attempts to redefine the goals of traditional heritage care, Jorge Otero-Pailos, quoted here several times, asks ontological, legal, historiographical, cultural, political and technological questions,25) drawing attention in this way to the inevitability of the conceptualisation of new objects of conservation and seeing it as a civilisational challenge for the field of heritage care: “We live today in a special situation in which certain artistic practices that stand outside of traditional conservation are coming to the forefront of a new conception of the field.”26) It is this unorthodox treatment of cultural objects (in the case of the aforementioned conservationist, even the ‘atmosphere’) that allows for a broader interpretation of the general values and statuses of cultural objects at the coordination/institutional level. I believe that more general terminology in legislative and non-legislative documents, including codes of ethics, etc., would literally 'free the hands' of memory institutions, allowing specific cultural organisations (museums, galleries, archives) to respond flexibly to the emerging and largely changing needs for new collection items. This would take the form of an independent and autonomous definition of collection and preservation priorities in the context of ethical principles.

A change in approaches in terms of conservation related to specific moving-image works will naturally provide space for a change in the perspective of the conservation-restoration profession. Another closely related aspect in this regard is the change in the academic status of conservator-restorers. Let's look at some of these aspects in greater detail.

By their very nature, time-based media do not conform to the idea of the historical object defined through the concept of material authenticity, which, although redefined several times in history, defines the basic ethical boundaries of conservation and restoration intervention on a cultural object.27) These are based on a gradually expanding interpretation of physical appearance (evidence) and rely on a material and structural understanding of specific objects. In his classification of interventions, the aforementioned Cesare Brandi listed positive and negative situations that determine the scope of conservation and restoration intervention: ageing, deterioration, accidents, damage. According to their character and scope (to which he applied an aesthetic perspective), a particular intervention has the nature of conservation, repair, restoration, adaptation, re-interpretation. The following period (1980–1990) brought heavier application of technological research in conservation and restoration intervention and introduced (especially in the Anglo-Saxon environment) the discipline of technical art history.

The result of the interaction of the disciplines involved is the re-interpretation of the profession of the conservator-restorer as a narrator, i.e. one who interprets and enters into the creation of the stories of a specific cultural object. In this framework, value has been assigned over the last forty years to originally unwanted signs of ageing (originally removed varnish, repainting, etc.), which support the narrative role of conservation and restoration intervention. This reversal, together with a turn towards the material nature of the cultural object, 'led' the profession to favour preventive conservation over other forms of conservation and restoration interpretation. Additional proof of this is the recent terminological categories contained in the documents and codes of ethics for conservator-restorers that are listed in the introduction to the essay.

This established form of conservation-restoration has been enriched in recent decades by an interdisciplinary approach that allows for the involvement of other professions, or at least their work procedures. However, it still contingent on the historicity of the material nature of cultural objects. If elements such as the denial of material originality, material impermanence or even the absence of (at least classical) materials enter the processes of conservation, protection and interpretation of cultural objects thanks to the moving image, we have to admit that a change in some procedures is inevitable and the possibilities of the profession may be quite limited.

The future of professional care may therefore be shaped not by the introduction of new fields of conservation-restoration of new media in an academic environment, but by postgraduate or complementary (in the sense of specialised) studies to the Master's degree in conservation-restoration (at art or engineering colleges). This idea follows the practice of British conservator-restorers, who see the development of the discipline more as an amalgamation of related conservator-restorer specialisms, while maintaining a unified basic professional education.28)

A major challenge for learning opportunities defined in this way is stimulating their ability to respond promptly to frequent changes (given the evolution of technology), as only then can we open the question of their integration into a specific cultural or academic institution, or of maintaining their institutional independence.


On its path to maturity, conservation-restoration will continue to be a part of heritage care. If the moving image and new media as new objects of cultural wealth help loosen today's ossified bureaucratic procedures and openly invite more flexible responses to the needs of cultural objects in the form of conservation-restoration options, we can move confidently in this direction.

Translated by David Gaul.

The text is also available in the original Czech version.

1) (accessed 24.7.2022).
3) Dokument o profesi konzervátora-restaurátora, Asociace muzeí a galerií ČR, 2010. The ‘conservation-restoration’ terminology in connection with the professional treatment of works of fine and applied arts comes from ICOM-CC recommendations (2008).
4) “Důvodová zpráva”, in: Lehmannová, Martina (ed.), Etické kodexy, Český výbor ICOM, 2014, pp. 63–64.
5) Lehmannová 2014, p. 64: ‘Profesní kodec konzervátora-restaurátora ICOM-CC (1986); ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums (2004); Dokument z Vantaa (2000); Victoria & Albert Museum Conservation Department Ethics Checklist (1994, 2004); E.C.C.O. Professional Guidelines I-III (2002-2004); AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice (1994); ICOM-CC Resolution on Terminology for Conservation (2008); Směrnice Evropského parlamentu a Rady 2005/36/ES o uznávání odborných kvalifikací; Competences for Access to the Conservation-Restoration Profession. A complete list of references is provided on pp. 76–77.
6) Among the most current, I can mention: Conversations on Conservation: Current Issues and Future Strategies in Decision Making, (accessed 24.7.2022).
7) Ashley-Smith, Jonathan, “The Adolescence of the Profession”, article presented at the conference Conservation: Principles, Dilemma and Uncomfortable Truths, London, 24.9.2009. Available online: (accessed 24.7.2022); also see: Richmond, Alison – Bracker, Alison (eds.), Conservation Principles, Dilemas and Uncomfortable Thruths, London, 2009.
8) The most recent in the Czech environment includes an essay published in: Melková, Pavla (ed.), Živá památka, IPR Prague, 2022.
9) Graeber, David, Utopie pravidel, Prague: Prostor, 2017; cf.: Otero-Pailos, Jorge, “Atmosféra jako kulturní objekt”, in: Melková 2022, note 8, p. 65.
10) This appears on all levels, from the process of recognition of the object as a monument, which includes its legitimisation by state institutions, their institutional mechanisms (professional associations, government agencies, professional journals, critics and art historians, etc.). The same is pointed out by Otero-Pailos, Jorge, “Tvůrčí aktéři”, in: Melková 2022, note 8, p. 51.
11) Czech translation: Brandi, Cesare, Teorie restaurování, Tichá Byzanc, 2000.
12) Graeber 2017, note 9, pp. 67–68.
13) For more on this activity, see Melková's 2022 essays, especially p. 67: “One area that has great potential in this regard is 'experimental heritage care' – a theoretically informed practice that tests hypotheses about what heritage care be and what it could accomplish.”
14) Otero-Pailos 2022, note. 9, p. 67.
15) Otero-Pailos 2022, note 9, p. 68.
16) Smith, Laurajane, Archeological Theory and the Politics of Cultural Heritage, London, 2004.
17) Also pointing out this trait in heritage care is Otero-Pailos, Jorge, “Experimentální památkové péče”, in: Melková 2022, p. 24: “social institutions codify human experience in order to normalise and control it.”
18) Graeber 2017, note 9, p. 16.
19) Otero-Pailos 2022, note 9, pp. 68–69
20) Otero-Pailos 2022, note 17, p. 25: “The time scale is most often short: our personal choices are likely to die with us unless they resonate in some way with the future choices of younger generations.” Cf.: Bauerová, Zuzana, “Konzervátor-restaurátor = Indiana Jones s bičem na minulost a budoucnost?”, Plato Ostrava, 20/11/2019, available at: (accessed 24.7.2022).
21) Otero-Pailos 2022, note 17, p. 21.
22) Otero-Pailos 2022, p. 26.
23) Otero-Pailos 2022, p. 17.
24) Every copy of the original, even the most perfectly created one, differs from it, loses certain technical, technological and aesthetic qualities, becomes mainly a set of information and its changes.
25) Otero-Pailos 2022, note 9, p. 65.
26) Otero-Pailos 2022, p. 68.
27) In this context, we can point out, e.g. the controversies surrounding the removal of lacquer, secondary (and historical) interventions, or the conclusions of the much-discussed conference in Greenwich (1974) on the ironing of paintings, etc. For more on the subject, see e.g. Leonard, Mark (ed.), Personal Viewpoints, Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2003.
28) Jonathan Ashley-Smith's article (note 7) recalls his colleague Jane Henderson's call in 2000: “we must realise that what unites us as conservators is far more significant than what divides us.”