Challenges that Preventive Conservation Poses to the Cultural Heritage Documentation Field

This contribution examines the challenges posed to the cultural heritage documentation community (the CIPA community and others) in implementing a preventive conservation approach of the built heritage.

The “DNA” of Preventive Conservation.

Various authors so far support the argument that preventive conservation (PC) is an effective way to respond to the challenges society faces with the preservation of its cultural heritage (CH) today.[1]

A few decades of experiences with application of PC in the field of immovable heritage in the form of Monumentenwacht in The Netherland and in Flanders have shown that a good monitoring of the state of preservation with a strong push of maintenance activities contributes to a more preservation of authenticity, to more cost-effective preservation and to empowering society in dealing with heritage preservation.[2]

An analysis of these and similar experiences demonstrate that these “Monumentenwacht” activities represent only a part of what could be named a preventive conservation system (PCS). Other fields in which prevention is advocated for its higher efficiency, show the importance of system thinking in the development of improved strategies.

Applying this approach to the field of the immovable heritage, referring to the initial results shown by the Monumentenwacht practices, it becomes clear that different dimension are at stake simultaneously: the preservation of authenticity or integrity, the management of resources and the connection with society. It shows that the analysis of challenges in heritage preservation and the development of strategies is à priori multifaceted and therefor has a certain level of complexity.

The sustainability of the preservation of CH buildings and sites can be measured according to its multiple economic, social, environmental and cultural support. The Cultural Heritage Counts for Europe report [3] has shown that the more diverse support exists for CH preservation actions according to those “pillars”, the more those actions will contribute to sustainable development and the more sustainable the preservation of that heritage will be. This reasoning has led to the widely acclaimed “upstream approach” which argues that CH preservation can benefit from a variety of resources which do not necessarily have to be earmarked for CH à priori [3].

It leads to arguing for an holistic and integrated approach for CH preservation that taps into different kinds of resources, which requires acknowledgement of the complex nature of understanding and managing heritage values into an overall societal development goal. [4]

Challenges in the Cultural Heritage documentation field.

Documentation needs in the field of CH preservation therefor are challenged by the complexity of the sources of information, by the need to integrate them in an holistic tool which at the same time will have to be able to dialogue with society.

1. The proper analysis of heritage requires increasing efforts by the diversity of sources and the complexity of their interaction. This (complexity acknowledging) analysis should be linked to monitoring tools which eventually contribute to following up changes in cultural heritage values. This monitoring is also a documentation challenge as the latter has to be pertinent and dynamic. Analysis and monitoring are important as they are the basis for understand threats based on damaging mechanisms that impact heritage values and their probability to occur.

2. As resources for heritage development or heritage guided development can have a variety of origins, their documentation and analysis –compared to the traditional curative object oriented preservation- should be extended to include many more possible resources. Experiences exist with documentation of the physical environment of heritage sites but the upstream approach points toward a larger number of development resources that can be tapped into (e.g. availability of volunteers, …). This implies the need to identify new approaches, to document them and to integrate them in a dynamic analytical process.

3. As PC focusses not only on the empowerment of the owners and managers but also on a better integration of a wider group of stakeholders, the question of ownership and continuous co-creation challenges the documentation process as well.

4. Longevity of documentation: the need for continuous updating and monitoring as part of the cyclic approach of PC challenges the longevity, accessibility of the documentation itself and the tools that will use them in the future.


About the Speaker

Koen Van Balen – holder of Unesco chair on preventive conservation, maintenance and monitoring of monuments and sites supported by the Fund established by PNP of Janssen Pharmaceutica at K.U.Leuven. Member of the scientific committee of the Joint Program Initiative on “Heritage and Global Change”. Director of the Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation (University of Leuven).