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