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Definitions of Damage

Jonathan Ashley-Smith
Head of Conservation, V&A Museum
London, UK
Text of a talk given in the session "When conservator and collections meet" at
the Annual Meeting of the Associaton of Art Historians, London, April 7-8,
1995. Not published .

I want to talk about ways of looking at change in museum objects over time,
ways of deciding when this change should be called damage, and whether
damage can ever be acceptable. It is not a simple subject and the following
treatment will be somewhat superficial. In an effort to be as general as
possible I am not going to show images of objects or micrographs of
deterioration. So if you want to leave...
Whether accidental or deliberate, damage to an object is an important part of
its history. Curators, conservation scientists and conservators all have different
ways of looking at objects and may therefore have different definitions of what
constitutes damage. I hope to show that we can't arrive at a consistent
understanding of damage without combining the views of at least these three
Because I have been both a scientist and a conservator I shall concentrate on
the contributions that these two groups make and their limitations. I have
never been a curator or an art historian and would not presume to discuss
their limitations, in public.
There are good reasons to suppose there will be differences of opinion. It is
unusual for curators, conservators and scientists to have taken the same
educational route to museum work. The objects that conservators spend most

time with have been damaged or are about to be. Conservators also spend a
great deal of their time in that wonderful other world that you get to through
the eyepieces of a binocular microscope. In that world very small signs have
great significance. Scientists, especially chemists, will also look for
explanations of macroscopic change at the microscopic or submicroscopic level.
They will attempt to attach numerical values to small changes.
Here are some examples of museum dialogues in which the subject of damage
may arise:
[Overhead 1
priorities for treatment
nature and extent of treatment
methods and conditions of display
suitability for loan]
Most of these are dealt with to some extent in later papers in this session.
Apart from the obvious " Oh my God I've dropped it!" there is the subject of
Authenticity - where the different perceptions and wisdom of curator,
conservator and scientist complement one another. And the presence of the
damage caused by old age or by restoration often provides valuable clues.
Priorities - Discussions about which objects to treat when, involve a
comparison of different views of urgency. There is the urgency dictated by the
timetable for presentation and interpretation. There is the urgency that is
based on predictions of future damage.
The nature and extent of treatment.- Discussions about the nature of
treatment will be about the inherent risk of the treatment. The probability of
damage through loss of material or loss of information. Often these discussions

are about the relative importance of future stability compared to present

appearance or ease of access. The use of adhesives in textile conservation
provides an example of this. The benefits of keeping the fragments of
degrading silk together in the future must be weighed against the immediate
loss of textile feel and appearance.
Questions about the extent of treatment usually centre on the proposed degree
of reintegration of a damaged object. Restoration may lead to loss of
information or introduction of misleading information. Both could be considered
as damage.
Involvement in display - The necessity of support to minimise handling and
to prevent future deterioration is balanced against the immediate desire for
unrestricted and aesthetically pleasing interpretation. The mounting of dress is
an example.
Conditions for display - Allowable levels of illumination provide the most
familiar example of cost-benefit analysis in museums. The benefits to the user
of being able to see the exhibit are compared with the costs, measured as
damage to the object. We are all familiar with rules or guide-lines about light
levels. 50 lux for textiles and works of art on paper. Stipulating the level of
lighting without considering the length of exposure is fairly meaningless as far
as control of fading is concerned. intensity of exposure and duration can be
combined to give a total dose of light. The attempt to prescribe a maximum
annual dose for each object makes us face up to the realities of the display /
damage relationship. Every exposure will cause some change. What criteria
can we use to define an acceptable rate?
Another arena in which conservators and curators may express differences of
opinion is in the selection of objects for loan to other institutions. The
differences are, of course, more often about the right to decide than the nature
of the decision.
The legitimate causes for concern are that travelling, and display in a different
environment, will increase the slow cumulative deterioration of the object. And

that the act of travelling carries with it the increased risk of catastrophic
change including total loss. So again we are faced with looking for criteria for
rates of change that are acceptable. In addition we are looking for a definition
of an acceptable probability of unacceptable change.
If you ask a simple question such as "what is damage?" it is easy to
demonstrate that there cannot be one simple answer. For instance, a
conservator cleans and consolidates an object, having with great professional
skill solved problems of both longevity and legibility. The art historian takes
one look at it and says "My God, you've ruined it!". Two people, one sees the
change as acceptable the other finds it totally unacceptable and declares the
act of change to be wanton damage.
Diversity of opinion is intellectually stimulating. Museums are interesting (or is
it stressful?) places to work because the studies of art and history breed
diversity. Yet, economic pressures demand corporate compliance.
For a variety of reasons, ranging from settling insurance claims, to setting
environmental parameters for exhibitions, to developing the strategic plan, it is
desirable that we control diversity sufficiently to arrive at a succession of
consistent decisions.
Even if we know we will never find one simple answer, we may be able to
order our thinking and group our various opinions closer together.
In order to bring order to my own thinking, I have been developing an
intellectual model of the activities of a museum. Not surprisingly, it centres on
the effects that museums have on the physical objects within them.

[Overhead 2

In this mode someone provides the resources to run the museum and
someone derives a benefit from the existence of the museum and its
collections. It is representatives of Society, principally the government, but
also ladies with blue hair and philanthropic arms dealers, that provide
resources. And it is Society, or at least certain classes and colours within
society, that gain benefit from the efficient allocation and application of these
resources within the museum.
[Overhead 3




The resources can be allocated to three areas that affect what happens to the
he first area is the environment, ideally one that is free of floods,
earthquakes, thieves and arsonists. Where the roof doesn't leak, where the
bugs don't bite and there is control over quantities of heat, light and dirt and
Access to the objects is obtained through display, reference collections,
handling collections, exhibitions, loans, replicas, research, publications, books
CD-ROMs. I have lumped all these together under the general heading-Use.
In the middle we have Treatment. Conservation treatment does not command
a large proportion of resources. But I don't know any major collection that
doesn't spend some money on interventive treatment each year. But there are
two reasons for including it as a major entity I the model. Treatment can have
a dramatic effect on individual objects. It affects how long they will last and
how easy they are to use. It is also the justification for my salary and so
rightly sits at the very centre.

Overhead 4

Environment State




These three factors; environment, treatment and use have effects on the
collections and their individual constituents. I have separated these effects into
two. Effects on the state of the object or collection, and effects on the value
of the object or collection.
Although both are apparently short and simple, the two words state and
value have complex connotations.
Briefly, State is what physically defines an object at any moment in time. All
those physical attributes such as material, dimensions, decoration and
evidence of manufacture that might appear in a curatorial catalogue entry are
combined with what the conservator would recognise as descriptions of
Value is not only what the Museum was or would be willing to pay for the
object. It also reflects the return on that investment ,in the number of visitors
that choose to see it, the number of students that wish to refer to it, the
number of images that are sold or licensed throughout the world. It is a
measure of demand for that particular work. It also should contain an element
of what economists call Net Present Value. This is the value for us today, of net
benefits that are predicted to accrue in the future. Thinking about the longterm benefits does something to eliminate the temporary fluctuations in value
due to fashion. It also reminds us that there is current value in preserving
some objects for extended periods.
Although the two terms state and value are strongly connected, it is easy to
show that they are distinct. A change in relative humidity will alter the weight,

dimensions and flexibility of a panel painting but will have no effect on its
value. The reattribution of a painting can have a dramatic effect on its
monetary and interest value without any change in its state.
[Overhead 5
inputs/outcomes Control








To summarise, we have three areas. The area of inputs and outcomes which
exists largely outside the museum. The area of control, where through policy,
resource allocation and daily practice we decide how we use and abuse the
collections. And finally the area where we observe the effects of our decisions
on the objects.
To make this a working model we have to examine all the possible
relationships between these seven elements. If we alter one of these elements,
what effect does this have on any of the others? There are some thirty-two
possible interactions in this model. Without discussion I am going to present
this highly simplified version in which only ten important interactions are
[Overhead 6]
The above with lots of arrows]
In a minute I will use the model to move towards a definition of damage. But
before that, just note that If you attempt any cost-benefit analysis of any
museum activity that relates to the collections, you have go right around this

route. You have to consider the combined effect of all of the possible
Environment, use and treatment can produce changes in objects. They produce
changes in state, which may in turn cause changes in value. These changes in
state are called: patina, restoration, or deterioration, depending on whether
the change is desirable, deliberate or accidental. By a convention proposed by
Canadian conservators ( Michalski, Waller, 1994), and in line with insurance
nomenclature, the term "damage" is reserved for a change that invokes some
sense of loss-of-property or loss-of-opportunity. In this model we would define
damage as: -a change of state that results in a loss in value. Or you could go
one step further round the chain and say that damage is something that
decreases use or potential use. Or one step further, something that decreases
the benefit that society can derive.
[Overhead 7
Rate of benefit X Life-span=total potential benefit]
If we can increase the rate at which society is allowed to benefit from the
collections or we can do something to increase the life-span of the individual
objects then we will have increased the total potential benefit, the maximum
amount of benefit that can ever be derived from that object. This is my
interpretation of The V&A's mission statement which is "to increase
understanding and enjoyment". This is a mathematical rephrasing of our
original problem of balance or compromise. If by increasing rate of enjoyment
we decrease life-span we may end up with a lower total benefit. The same will
happen if in our attempt to increase life-span we decrease rate of enjoyment.
So a further definition of damage is:
something that by an effect on our level of understanding and enjoyment or on
the object's life-span causes a decrease in total benefit.
[Overhead 6 again]

However for the moment we will stay in the area of value. This is the point
where the physical state of the object becomes combined with the effects of
information about the object and opinion about the object. Understanding the
physical state and predicting the life-span is primarily the realm of the scientist
and conservator. Information and opinion are very much the realm of art
historian, curator and educator. as indeed are understanding and enjoyment.
Linking damage to a change in value begins to lead us somewhere. A definition
of damage as "any change of state" does not. The definition of damage as "any
undesirable change of state" begs the question of why one state is to be
desired rather than another.
Lets look at the methods that we currently use to assess state and then at the
relationship between state and value.
When conservators write condition reports they have a wide vocabulary for
signs of change of state. There are all sorts of words for things that, in the
conservator's opinion, shouldn't have been allowed to happen. Wrinkle, cockle,
tent, dent, fade, stain, accretion, loss. But when it comes to comparing one
object with another or looking at the same object at different points of time
the vocabulary becomes relational and poorly descriptive. Very scratched,
considerably faded, more wrinkled. It is because of this lack of a quantitative
vocabulary that increasing use is made of photographs in condition reports.
Surveys of the state of whole collections involve an assessor, usually a
conservator, placing the observed condition of individual objects into one of
several categories.
The categories most frequently used (Keene) are:

Good condition in context. Stable

disfigured or damaged but stable. No immediate action needed.

restricted use, probably unstable. Action desirable.

weakened, highly unstable, affecting other objects. Immediate action.

The choice of an even number of categories forces the assessor to place the
condition on one or other side of a central dividing line. Above the line we have
stable, no action. Below the line we have unstable, action needed. Above the
line there is nothing for the conservator to do, below the line the assessor has
justified the continued existence of conservators. The majority of judgements
are something to do with state, it is above the line that we see judgements
about value--in context, disfigured. In fact the assessments are all about
changes of state. Unstable means moving from one state to another.
Conservators believe that they can make a holistic appraisal of a dynamic
process by making a single observation.
The methods of the scientist are in complete contrast.
The scientist will choose one physical or chemical property of one of the
materials the object is made of and measure it. The property chosen is one
that could reasonably be expected to change with time. The act of
measurement is a comparison with some standard, something that is not
expected to change.
After a period of natural or accelerated ageing the scientist will take another
measurement and record a new value. This process will be repeated at regular
intervals so that a graph can be drawn of the change in that attribute with
[Overhead 8
(Typical graph showing data points in a line sloping down
to the right)]


Time is shown along this axis, the units of measurement could be days,
months, years. The measurement of the chosen property is shown by the
height of the data point above the baseline. All the points can be joined
together to form a line. In this case the line slopes downward from left to right
as the numerical value of the observed property decreases with time. This
would be the case if the measured characteristic were the tear strength of a
piece of paper.
As a definition of state a measurement made by instrumental analysis has the
advantage that it can be compared to other measurements using the same
methods of analysis. The numbers can be subjected to mathematical and
graphical analysis. For instance we can extrapolate and predict that this
property will have a value of zero when time equals about twenty one units.
It has the disadvantage that it can only be applied to properties that are
subject to quantitative measurement. That is, the attributes are chosen for
their relative ease of measurement rather than by their relevance to the way
the object is used or valued.
Moreover the strength of the scientific method is also its weakness. Each set of
measurements applies to a separate property in isolation. For instance with a
suitable instrument we can take colour measurements of small areas on the
surface of a watercolour painting. However the appreciation of a watercolour
may not just be a function of the reflected colours of small patches of pigment,
but of the uniformity of larger patches of that colour, the contrast of colour or
density between adjacent areas, or the distribution of different densities across
the whole painting. So even though a number of the colours may change quite
noticeably, the holistic appreciation of the object may hardly alter. The
measurement of state when applied in the real world of people turns out to be
an inappropriate measurement of value.
[Overhead 0
(three simple graphs explained in text)]

Given all these difficulties, let us just assume that we can find some
measurable property that is universally agreed to have a direct relevance to
the way that the object is used or appreciated. The lower this particular quality
is, the less easy it is to use the object and the more difficult it is to appreciate
it. Using the experienced eye of the conservator or the blind impartially of
instrumental analysis, we find that there is a direct linear relationship between
state and time. This might also be a picture of state versus hours of light
exposure, or cycles of relative humidity or number of trips in the Museum van.
With the appropriate units this is the relationship of state to cumulative dose of
damaging event.
By using the various sensitivities and sensibilities of art-historians, curators,
teachers and exhibition designers we find we have a direct linear relationship
between state and value. By combining the two we arrive at a picture of the
relationship between value and time. As time-elapsed increases the value
decreases. I have defined the starting point at 100%value or 0% damage.
When the graph line hits this axis the value becomes zero and damage 100%.
That is one indisputable definition of the limit of acceptable damage. At the top
end there is only one point that represents 100% of value. The value is only
100% when exposure is zero. If we want to say that any value below 100%
constitutes unacceptable damage then we can never move or expose or use
the object in any way. In that case I would maintain that the object might as
well not exist.
So if the object is to be used we have to be prepared to go down this road and
we have to choose a totally arbitrary number for the acceptable limit to
damage somewhere between 0 and 100%. The number doesn't have to be
totally random, it could be arrived at by discussion amongst a group of
experts, art historians for instance, who agree that at a certain level the object
will no longer demonstrate those qualities for which it was acquired. Suppose
this number is 75% of the original value. At our present rate of use, the object
will have suffered an unacceptable degree of damage after X years.


This is not inevitable. We can exercise some control. Either by reducing the
intensity of each exposure to damaging influence or by reducing the duration
of exposure, or both. This will make the slope of the graph less steep.
[Overhead 10
graph explained in text]
This way we can increase the object's useful life two times, three times, as
many times as we like. But it will always eventually reach that 75% line. So if
we want to say there will only be one allowable rate of damage, then there can
only be one acceptable slope for this line. The attempt to define a maximum
annual dose of light for sensitive objects is such an attempt to fix the slope of
this line. To fix that slope we have to define another arbitrary number--the
service life of the object.
If we as guardians of this valuable and vulnerable artifact want to control its
current use, then we have to declare in advance how long we think it should be
allowed to function in the future. I am not being cynical when I say that people
will inevitably choose a minimum service life that is long enough to ensure that
they are completely retired if not dead by the time the limit is reached. This
would tend to make the minimum value ever proposed for minimum service
life somewhere in the order of thirty years. In my view an absolute maximum
for the minimum service life of sensitive museum objects is two hundred years.
That's about double the life of that whole public museum experiment that is
being conducted up on Exhibition road.
[Overhead 11
graph explained in text]
Recognising that it is an arbitrary line we may choose this as guidance rather
rigid restriction. How much latitude can we allow ourselves?


The upper limit is set by the cost of control and the fact that if you reduce
exposure to damage you will reduce the benefit that is derived from exposure.
For example, to minimise light damage we rotate displays of sensitive material.
There is a manpower cost in constantly changing the display and also an
additional risk of mechanical wear and tear. The benefit is severely reduced if
levels of light are so low that aspects such as colour cannot be perceived or if
objects are visible for so short a time that only a lucky few get to see them.
What about the lower limit? There are cost constraints on increasing the
intensity or duration of exposure to damaging factors. For sensitive objects the
cost is obvious damage. For robust objects It may actually cost too much to
cause noticeable damage through increasing the intensity of routine museum
activities. With some types of increased exposure there will be diminishing
returns in benefit. For instance of the millions of people who went to the
Tutankhamun exhibitions very few actually had time to appreciate the exhibits.
[Overhead 12
graph explained in text]
So you end up with a graph like this where at high rates of damage, benefits
decrease and costs escalate and at low rates of damage costs start to rise and
benefits drop dramatically. Any rate of damage for which benefits exceed costs
will be acceptable. If you are averse to risk, which by definition conservators
and possibly curators are, you will be tempted to operate at this low end but
should be aware that you are not maximising net benefit.
What I have shown is an exceedingly simplified picture. for instance I have
neglected the involvement of treatment in the relationship. It is my
observation that people can come to terms with fading as a cost to be set
against the benefit of display, but will not accept the mechanical detachment of
small pieces of surface decoration. Yet this mechanical loss is easily reversed
by treatment, fading is not considered treatable. Bizarre!


Many rates of deterioration are not linear with time. More important, the
relationship of state and value is almost certainly not linear.
[Overhead 13
two graphs explained in text]
If you have a very plain surface such as an undecorated ceramic, or a polished
metal object like a sword blade or silver vessel, then the first scratch or chip is
the one that does most to lessen our enjoyment. The effect of the hundredth
scratch on the value is negligible.
Conversely if you take a highly decorated surface with substantial asymmetric
variations of hue, density and texture, the development of craquelure may
have only a slight effect on one's appreciation. Even a large number of small
random losses does not prevent legibility.
I have been looking at methods of quantifying damage as change in value that
have been applied in the fields of health and environmental impact. Doctors do
not quantify the health of a human being in terms of loss of physical bits and
pieces but as decrease of mobility, self-care and social activity. These relate
strongly to the value, use, benefit part of my model. It is interesting that when
doctors were asked to give relative numerical gradings to increasing degrees of
disability, the graph of quality-of-life against degree of disability looks exactly
like this (like the curve for damage to a complex object) So I think there is
some mileage in further research along these lines.
To summarize:

damage is observer- and context- dependent

Not all change is damage

most damage is the result of use

use increases benefit


some damage must be accepted

no single viewpoint is sufficient to set an acceptable rate.]

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Timestamp: Sunday, 23-Nov-2008 15:20:04 PST
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