What is the ‘it’ we conserve?

Professor Jane Henderson
Cardiff University

What is conservation? 

Conservation is central to archaeology. By intervening to save the finds and sites conservators help capture and share evidence of our past. Conservation occurs at the transition point of archaeology: the point when the information becomes more available and more vulnerable simultaneously.  It is natural to focus on the tangible qualities of an object at the point of its excavation. For example, finding a wattle fence and identifying the materials meant we know that it should it be kept damp. 

Jane at Llangorse, it was my experience in archaeology that made it clear I was a conservator. 

My first object 

I remember when I started conservation my first object was a roman nail. My teacher said, ‘it’s just iron think of the properties of the metal’.  I duly deferred to the science of corrosion. But that evening all I could do was squeal to my flatmates ‘I touched a roman * I mean roman* nail today’. Although it took me decades to express this dichotomy, I always knew material properties were not enough to explain what is the it we conserve (and why archaeology is so exciting). 

Jane as a student (yes that is me on the right) 


This led to my fascination with the preservation of tangible and intangible aspects of things. I teach conservation as starting with significance. These trains offer two very different perspectives on what it means to preserve an engine.  Deciding whether it is more important to retain the thread, the piston and the ball-bearing intact or the sound, smell and motion requires you to answer the question – what is IT that we preserve? 

Two trains: two different sets of values preserved 


To help answer that lets look at some theory.  Windelband identified nomothetic and idiographic approaches.

In seeking to understand our conservation challenges as ‘the material’ we can create reliable results, whereas to understand this as a once worn shoe we have a personal connection to the past. Which path should we follow? 

To engage in idiographic research it’s necessary to be comfortable with uncertainty. People place their own values on objects, they can disagree and even change their mind over time. It is hard to insist on a unitary value or a single truth.  

Evolution of Conservation 

In the 100 years of Archaeology in Cardiff, conservation grew as a profession from a merger of skilled craftspeople and scientific researchers, but the blend never sat comfortably.  Analytical work dominated the professional discourse with a tendency to represent skills as less intellectual.  

Unfortunately, the safety of reproducible but reductionist science had negative consequences for the profession including the downgrading of highly skilled individuals and the persistence of cautious and unsustainable preservation techniques. 

Reflective practice 

Once you accept that what is being preserved is a value represented by but not limited to form, conservation can unify as a profession with reflective practice at its heart. A profession that learns from practice & engages with society’s messy challenges.  


Liberation from reductionist materiality creates space in heritage thinking. Destroying the colonial narrative of universal museums that ‘we get to keep it because we can look after it’.  Valuing experience over existence provides a compelling reason for conservators to support repatriation. 

Conserving Amy 

In our practical teaching we continue to develop theory from practice. In this conservation project Ellie Sweetnam (@EllieSweetnam) is evolving a theory of #DisruptiveConservation. Her conservation of this doll focusses on her relationship with the doll’s owner rather than an adherence to the fabric of the doll. Such reflection in and on practice is the theoretical bedrock of a united conservation profession. 

‘Amy’ before and after a repair that centred human relationships  (credit Ellie Sweetnam)


Conservation continues to ponder its relationship with heritage science but we at Cardiff are making our contribution to its growth. By challenging the ‘it’ that we conserve we can make our goal to conserve memory, love, beauty, struggles and failures. These are the fundamental human concepts that drive us all and remind us why even in a pandemic conserving cultural heritage is essential for human existence.  

Conserving human history in Cardiff University 

Cardiff Conservation in Practice

Phil Parkes, Reader in Conservation
Cardiff Universtiy

Cardiff Conservation Services 

I joined the University in 1993, working on the conservation of archaeological objects from Cadw excavations throughout Wales.  Archaeology at this time was changing, with the introduction of ‘Developer Funding’ meaning that private companies and organisations were looking for contractors to carry out conservation work. Conservation is the examination, analysis, cleaning and repair of objects to ensure that they can be studied and displayed for generations to come. With my colleague, Susanne Ryder, I launched ‘Cardiff Conservation Services’ in 1994 to bring in commercial work from archaeological and other organisations, museums and private individuals. Over the years this has brought in over £1 million in funding, and a wide range of projects, some of which are included below. 

Museum of Cardiff 

The Museum of Cardiff (formerly The Cardiff Story Museum) was officially opened on Tuesday 28th June 2011 by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall. Cardiff is an incredible city with a rich and fascinating history. The museum aims to tell the full story of our social history. 

On show at the Museum are objects that have been collected from across Cardiff and were in need of cleaning and repair prior to being displayed. I supervised the £30,000 conservation project which involved myself and David Pearson, a graduate of our BSc Conservation course, working on almost 200 of the objects so that they could be displayed in the museum.  

The objects have been donated to the museum by members of the public and all of them have personal stories attached to them, be it how they were used, who owned them or what event they commemorated. The objects date from the 19th / 20th century and include items such as medals and badges, household objects, tools used in the docks and factories. There are also objects with resonant links to Cardiff including a Clarks Pie stand and trays used in the bakery, early vinyl records from Spillers, and a jukebox from Clwb Ifor Bach. 

Rudolph the marionette being conserved by Phil Parkes, Reader in Conservation, Cardiff University. Rudolph was used by the donor Marian’s family to entertain parties all over Cardiff in the early part of the 20th Century. All the marionettes were handmade by her father.
This CD jukebox from Clwb Ifor Bach presented a challenge as it was locked and the inside was dirty with loose CD sleeves. Sourcing a key from the US I was able to open it, clean and repair the sleeves and leave it so that it is showing some of my favourite Welsh bands.

Advisory Work – Welsh Assembly Government 

Conservation work isn’t always about working directly on objects. Some of the most effective conservation can be carried out on collections as a whole, looking at how they are kept and stored, and over the years I have carried out a large number of surveys of collections held by museums throughout the UK. Looking after our heritage is not just about advising individual museums, it’s also about national policies and alongside my colleague, Jane Henderson over the last 20 years I have carried out surveys and produced advisory documents for the Welsh Assembly Government, providing evidence to inform and shape our national cultural heritage policy. This work continues to date, with the Spotlight 2020 survey that is being carried out right now for heritage collections throughout Wales. 

Jane Henderson providing collections care and packaging training for Welsh museums
Jane Henderson advising on collections care, Yangon, Myanmar. 
What’s in Store – a survey of Welsh archaeological archives and recommendations for improving their future management and access to them. 
The Spotlight on Museums reports provide baseline information to inform the development of Welsh Assembly Government policy for museums. 

Cardiff Castle 

Cardiff Castle, in the care of Cardiff City Council, has a long history with remains from the Roman, medieval and early post-medieval periods accessible to visitors as well as the iconic neo-gothic restoration. 

In 2005 the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust carried out excavations in the castle ahead of the construction of a new interpretation centre. These works were required as a condition of both planning and scheduled monument consents for the development. During 2018/19 I supervised the conservation of archaeological finds from this excavation by Chris Wilkins, a graduate of our BSc Conservation course who had recently completed his PhD at Cardiff University.  

This project saw the x-ray and conservation of a large number of finds including 200 coins and 500 copper alloy objects. Chris also carried out analysis of several of the objects, looking at the composition of the materials. As part of the project we produced a series of blogs about the conservation work which can be found here and give much more information about the finds and the work that has been carried out.  

Film of Chris Wilkins working on Roman coins from Cardiff Castle.

The Egypt Centre

Cardiff University has a long working partnership with The Egypt Centre, Swansea University, since the 1970’s when Cardiff Conservation students worked on objects from the Wellcome Collection belonging to Swansea University. Prior to the Egypt centre opening in 1998, Cardiff Conservation Services conserved a number of objects ready for display in the new exhibition.  

This work continues to the current day, with both student projects and the Association of Independent Museums funding the “Provisions for the Dead in Ancient Egypt” project. This is to conserve a number of items from the collection to enhance interpretation and display. With my colleague Ashley Lingle, who recently completed her PhD at Cardiff University, I have been digitising the conservation records for objects worked on at Cardiff University, which includes coffins, cartonnage, figurines, stone stela and ceramic vessels. You can find out more about these items at The Egypt Centre website. Ashley has been working on the objects and is currently in the process of rebuilding a large decorated ceramic vessel from Armana.  

Ashley Lingle working on a large ceramic vessel from Armana. The painted decoration is very fragile and Ashley is painting a wax coating onto it to protect it during transport back to our labs at Cardiff. Having protected the flaking paint during transport, the wax will slowly ‘volatilise’ and disappear over a number of days, leaving no trace that it was there. 
Students from the MSc Conservation Practice course study objects from The Egypt Centre collection as part of a study visit. 


I have worked on hundreds of conservation projects during the 25+ years that Cardiff Conservation Services has been in existence at Cardiff University, from conservation of treasured items for private clients through to major projects for national and international heritage organisations and museums. I hope that this has given you a brief taste of some of the work that I carry out and please follow on @CUConservation and @PhilParkes4 on Twitter for news on projects as they arise.