Future decades will witness increasing challenges to the survival of individuals, communities, societies, and cultures. As new materials are invented, intentionally engineered for their activity by people, new questions are posed to conservators, whose work concerns the human entanglement with matter. Accelerating climate changes introduce new challenges of activity on the macroscale of systems, mandating renegotiated strategies for the management of cultural heritage. Moreover, expanded notions of activity extend the care and stewardship of items in museum collections beyond material boundaries to include the preservation of living relationships, ecological histories, cultural knowledge, and practices of making.

As conservators turn to an ever-growing set of challenges, constituencies, and collaborators, how might they play an expanded role in guiding and advising the response to the accelerated activity of matter? What are the opportunities for creative thinking and practice as we prepare for a future life with unanticipated forms and levels of activity? How might meeting these challenges transform conservation as a field of work and body of thought?


Inspired by considerations of sustainability, designers like Neri Oxman and Aniela Hoitink are developing materials that incorporate biodegradability. Designed to degrade over time in order to be remade, what might the conservation of these materials entail? 

Achim Menges and his team exploit the natural environmental responses of various materials, designing structures that use these meteorosensitive materials to work with, instead of against, the inherent activity of matter. What different strategies might the conservation of such items require? 

Beyond discrete items, conservators have also become involved with preventive planning for the impact of activity on the macroscale—climate change. One such example is its impact on sites of cultural heritage around the world. Through their work, contemporary artists also find opportunities to incorporate the effects of such activity in their work.

Through close study, conservators collaborating with scholars and community makers and users gain a better understanding of the stark contrasts between the world impacted by climate change today and the world in which items residing in museum collections were made. In some cases, the ecological circumstances of the present day preclude the continued making of these items and preservation of such craft. In other cases, these studies have created opportunities to reveal historical ecologies whose only traces are materially preserved in items. These collaborations have also made an impact on the preservation of important cultural knowledge for the future.

The conservation of cultural heritage contributes to the ongoing survival of communities, societies, and cultures. As the profession of conservation evolves to meet the needs of the future, this work may no longer be solely the responsibility of conservators. Instead, conservators may share their expertise with other individuals and communities in order to do so.

The information contained within historical items that have been preserved in museum collections enable the re-performance of previously lost cultural knowledge, serving as a reminder that conservation can extend beyond the physical to involve the maintenance of relationships—among people, and between people and their environments. 

Mark Dion’s The Conservator’s Cupboard (2017), situated at the start of the gallery exhibition, looks back at conservation’s past. The exhibition ends by looking forward with a selection of ideas for the future of the field. What do today’s conservators along with anthropologists, archaeologists, caregivers, collectors, community makers and users, curators, historians, philosophers, and scientists envision for the future of conservation? What instruments and knowledge might a future conservator require? And what will the work include?

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