The key role of conservation in developing cultural heritage

The theme indicated in the title of this paper refers to events that are among the most important in conservation: both the many great advances made in this sector in recent decades and the further important developments that have started

The theme indicated in the title of this paper refers to events that are among the most important in conservation: both the many great advances made in this sector in recent decades and the further important developments that have started to take hold. The advances have been achieved through a major ethical and methodological evolution, which has succeeded in limiting some of the grave losses of cultural heritage otherwise caused by natural deterioration and by the anthropic action of so-called ‘economic development’. They are advances supported by the ever more common recognition of the economic-social role of conservation, of the value that the conservation of cultural heritage holds for sustainable development and improvement in the quality of life.

The thoughts offered here refer to the conservation of both cultural heritage and environmental and landscape assets, inseparable aspects of a single future, as so magnificently stated in the Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 5-16 June 1972:

1. Man is both creature and moulder of his environment, which gives him physical sustenance and affords him the opportunity for intellectual, moral, social and spiritual growth. In the long and tortuous evolution of the human race on this planet a stage has been reached when, through the rapid acceleration of science and technology, man has acquired the power to transform his environment in countless ways and on an unprecedented scale. Both aspects of man’s environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights-even the right to life itself;

  1. The protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the well-being of peoples and economic development throughout the world; it is the urgent desire of the peoples of the whole world and the duty of all Governments.[1]

Cultural heritage, in the broadest sense of the term, includes the territory, environment, the historically stratified landscape, and the material and immaterial culture. All this must be protected, assuring survival with respect for its specificity, but must also be brought into conditions so that it can be understood, shared, and participated in by the citizens, and play its full, active role in society. In this sense, the Faro Convention, one of the most recent international conventions on material culture, defines:

“…the cultural heritage as a group of resources inherited from the past which people identify, independently of ownership, as a reflection and expression of their constantly evolving values, beliefs, knowledge and traditions. It includes all aspects of the environment resulting from the interaction between people and places through time.”

The Faro Convention plays a key role in promoting the radical changes currently taking place, with its affirmation of “the need to involve everyone in society in the ongoing process of defining and managing cultural heritage”, and its invitation to the States to promote processes of participative development, based on synergies between public institutions and the community. Here, the community itself is defined as the “inheritor” or steward of the heritage. Article 9 of the Convention deals with the sustainable use of cultural heritage, exhorting the responsible parties “to promote respect for the integrity of the cultural heritage by ensuring that decisions about change include an understanding of the cultural values involved; to define and promote principles for sustainable management, and to encourage maintenance.”[2]

The structure and principles of the Faro Convention enunciate the evolutionary path that has in fact played out thus far in the debate on the value, role, conservation and development of cultural heritage. One of the elements of this evolution has been the development of a commonly recognised language, through the codified definition of a series of fundamental terms. Among these are:

“Cultural heritage – The whole range of tangible and intangible (material and immaterial) human expressions that brings a message characterizing a society. The material cultural heritage includes movable and immovable elements.”[3]

“Conservation –  All measures and actions aimed at safeguarding tangible cultural heritage while ensuring its accessibility to present and future generations. Conservation embraces preventive conservation, remedial conservation and restoration. All measures and actions should respect the significance and the physical properties of the cultural heritage item.”

The convention opens with important premises:

“(a) Our aim is to hand on tangible cultural heritage to future generations while ensuring its current use and respecting its social and spiritual significance; (b) Any measures and actions taken result from an inclusive interdisciplinary decision-making process; (c) The decision-making process always includes documentation and investigation (historical, art historical, scientific or technical), and takes into account the past, present and future context of the item; (d) Our professional community has grown significantly in size and in the variety of professions and cultures represented; (e) The public has increasingly become an essential partner in safeguarding our shared cultural heritage.”[4]

One of the aspects of the ongoing evolution has been the adoption of the principle of “conservation in situ”, with respect for the original context and the use of restoration materials compatible with the original. Illustrative of this is the use of lime, as theorised during forty years in a campaign by the International Committee for the Conservation of Mosaics, and brought to reality in the 1990s in Israel by the Centro di Conservazione Archeologica (CCA) of Rome, together with the Israel Antiquities Authority and Israel National Parks. It was at this time that we experienced the “revolution of conservation in situ and of lime”, when both practices were definitively and broadly introduced into the country.[5] 

Cesarea, 1992: participants in a course on restoration of historic buildings using lime, organised by the Centro di Conservazione Archeologica (CCA) of Rome in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority and Israel National Parks.


Zippori, 1994. The Nile festival mosaic: the first mosaic floor conserved in situ in Israel using exclusively lime-based materials. A December 2017 survey confirmed the good state of preservation, 13 years after treatment – results that can attributed to the stability of the lime mortars used during conservation and the constant, careful maintenance provided by park technical staff.


The evolutionary progress made in recent decades has in part been possible due to the opportunities for information exchange offered by Internet, as used in international professional networking.  The Internet has given a great assist in the area of training, as represented by the success of memberships of the Foundation ICCM and by the Mosaikon program. Beginning in the first decade of the 2000s, this program has developed a professional network capable of offering base-level training in conservation and restoration for numerous Mediterranean countries. From this there arises a larger professional community, capable of interacting in coordinated manner for multiplication and sustainment of the technical results.[6] 

Alghero, 2014. Mosaic conservators attending the Mosaikon workshop and 12th conference of the International Committee for the Conservation of Mosaics.

Other examples of the evolution in progress have been the development of easy access to digital technologies for documentation and diagnostic work, and the consistent application of a codified understanding of preventive conservation, as described in the definition by the International Council of Museums:

Preventive conservation – All measures and actions aimed at avoiding and minimizing future deterioration or loss. They are carried out within the context or on the surroundings of an item, but more often a group of items, whatever their age and condition. These measures and actions are indirect – they do not interfere with the materials and structures of the items. They do not modify their appearance.[7]

The development of preventive conservation has made numerous technical solutions possible, for the treatment and protection of materials, structures and sites. But it has also offered archaeologists, architects, planners, and above all conservators, a series of solutions and choices that would formerly have been inconceivable. For example, who would have imagined that periodic lime-based treatment would be the most compatible solution for the protection of stone surfaces of historic buildings?[8] Or that a program of periodic maintenance could be the most advantageous and economic solution for the health of a collection of classical sculptures and for the budge of the responsible museum administration?[9] Decades ago, who would have thought that reburying a just completed archaeological excavation could be both a practical solution, and one with ethical and economic advantages? Perhaps there could be a seasonal program of covering and uncovering, as a means of attracting public attention and encouraging repeated visitation over a series of years?[10] And who would have imagined creating a narrative around an unexcavated archaeological site or ‘undeveloped’ historic site, and of opening such places to the public when they have yet to be excavated or restored? 

Rome, Villa dei Quintili. Preventive conservation strategies for the antique floors at this site allow for visitor access and viewing. Floors that cannot be closed to traffic are covered with “walk-over” materials. Others are provided with coverings during the more harmful winter season and then exposed during summer. The image shows a non-contact burial system using tuff of two different colors to distinguish the original rooms from the courtyard area.


Rome, Villa dei Quintili. Mosaic and opus sectile floors are easily covered using Goretex sheets, then uncovered during the summer season.

Another important aspect of evolutionary progress has been the development of training programs that create awareness on the theme of the fragility of the cultural heritage and the need for its protection, including through use in an informed and careful manner. We now see many such programs, not only for heritage workers, but also for youths, students and visitors.[11]

Speaking of ‘use’, another great advance in recent years has been the ever-increasing recognition of the role of the public as ‘direct user’, and so potential ‘agressor’ or ‘protector’ of cultural and environmental heritage. Three programs for opening restoration to the public have been particularly informative: the work sites for the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum in 1985, “Open for Restoration”, at the Rome Capitoline Museums, in operation from 1990 to 2000 and the Great Bath House in Masada in 1996. These demonstrated that investments in involving the public, media, and administrative and political classes, in the processes of heritage conservation and development, could provide immediate gains in awareness, and in intelligent, shared use.[12] 

“Open for Restoration”, at the Rome Capitoline Museums. Support from the City of Rome included a public transit advertising campaign. More than 1 million visitors attended, free of charge. In 2004 the project received the International Institute for Conservation “Keck Award”, for best communication program.


The Great Bath House in Masada: more than 500,000 people visited the conservation worksite in action, following special trails leading through the building. Visitors expressed strong appreciation for the initiative.

Conservation and use: the conservator must constantly direct their planning towards these two aims, even though they could seem divergent in nature. The object is to search for a meeting point or intersection of the double aims, which gains maximum benefits for both, without detriment to either. Imagine a scale from 1 to 100, in which a score of 100 on the ‘conservation axis’ would be reached when a cultural or natural property is totally inaccessible and protected, and a value of 100 on the “use axis’ when a property is totally and freely accessible. The task of the conservator is to design their interventions in such a manner as to reach as far as possible along both axes of value. [13]

Conservators must constantly direct their planning towards the twin aims of conservation and use, even though these could seem divergent in nature. The objective is to search for a meeting point or intersection obtaining maximum benefits for both, without detracting from either.

Although recognising the need for conservation and protection as the absolute priority, we must not forget that the use, and the transmission of the historic content and natural value, are the essence of conservation itself: the primary objective. Given the existence of risks of damage or loss of a property, it can be legitimate to limit their current fruition, with a view to preserving them for further future use. At the same time, use it itself so important and necessary that it must also always enter into planning. Given equal technical and scientific knowledge and skills, the better conservator will be the one who is able to plan interventions that ensure the greatest access and use of the property, without the primary resource, the property itself, being damaged, eroded, denatured, or placed at risk in any way.

Over the past decades, the technical-methodological evolution of conservation as a science has also continued, through increasing levels of specialization for trained operators and widening the range of action of for programs of excellence.
But it would be reductive to consider the great advances in this sector as being only the technical kind: today it is universally recognised that the conservation of monuments, sites
and of natural heritage is a fundamental aspect in development of a community’s civil identity, at the same time as representing a formidable instrument for economic, social and cultural progress. Conservation is the natural way to unite the necessary protection and the development of the community’s cultural heritage community. Conservation must involve the community itself, generating positive synergy, able to strengthen social relationships and increase historical and cultural awareness. Conservation is the most efficient solution for developing local economies, based on the care of sites and the resulting local and international tourism. Conservation is a phenomenal instrument for creating cultural projects that catalyze the attention of the media, the political classes, administrators and the public, on a global level.

Conserving cultural patrimony today
means protecting memory and community identity for present and future generations, through continual care, but above all it means improving the conditions of knowledge
and increasing possibilities for fruition and understanding, by serving an active role in society.
 Conservation interventions can no longer pursue the limited goals of good practice, limited only to technical operations.
Correctly invested resources can instead produce good technical results and at the same time manifest all the CULTURAL POTENTIAL possible through the specific interventions, with no further cost. The key is to design the interventions in consideration of the broader aims. More specifically the key is to COMMUNICATE CONSERVATION.

In modern practice, the opening of all conservation projects, small and large, and the interaction and dialogue between conservators at work and the general public and the media, are obligatory actions for true professionals. This development is not ‘automatic’. It is the result of a long cultural transformation based on education and training. The main goal of the new attitude is to transform the conservators from executor of technical procedures to protagonists of CULTURAL PROJECTS: they must acquire the necessary tools needed for this crucial interaction with the public.  The use of these tools must become ‘second nature’, just as it has become ‘natural’ to conserve in situ and with lime.

Thanks to the great work achieved in the past and to the maturity reached by professionals in the sector, the objective is now accessible, and a ‘second revolution’ is just ahead. The path of actions in the future of conservation is clearly drawn: offering support and resonance for the ‘visions’ of decision makers; broadening of project manager skills, so that the technical their interventions are transformed into real cultural projects; increasing the specialized training of conservators, so that all professional sectors become self-sufficient; making the current results sustainable, through internal teaching of new generations of conservators;
imprinting all individual operators with the expertise and attitude of communicating the profession, and providing them with tools to design and implement communication plans; raising the levels of public communication meet international standards; opening conservation projects on the national and international stage.

Cultural and natural heritage are fragile, and to be protected and appreciated, require specialized and continual attention. The conservation and development of such heritage is a highly specialized sector, in which small numbers are important. It is a sector where even one careful and competent action by a single professional can produce enormous changes and results. An example of this is seen in the MCC’s Mosaikon program, where the overall final results have triggered an important change in Mediterranean countries, producing a new generation of professionals over a period of ten years. These results encourage us and indicate the direction forward. We can be certain that we’re not speaking of dreams, but realisable objectives. 

The Mosaic Conservation Course, part of the Mosaikon program, has been held annually since 2011 at the Convent of San Nicola in Belmonte Sabina, headquarters of the Centro di Conservazione Archeologica of Rome. The program has produced a new generation of professionals who have triggered important changes in Mediterranean countries.

Today, cultural and natural sites and properties are ever more often treated in an economic sense. There is nothing wrong with this if the economic considerations are interpreted in a broad manner and in the long term: with a view to community benefits and the primary respect of the properties themselves. Unfortunately this is not always the case, and the economic reading of heritage properties is often only an interpretation as potential sources of revenue:  a revenue that is generally considered inexhaustible, as well illustrated in these days by the former Superintendent of Cultural Heritage for Rome, commenting on the latest collapse of a historic building: “The idea has developed that heritage properties are a sort of petroleum basin, to be limitlessly exploited with no concern for their preservation.”[14]

Far from diminishing the important links between cultural and natural properties and economic potentials, our conviction is firmly the contrary: that careful attention to conservation interventions can be an optimal driving force. The potential of a site or a property must be translated into CULTURAL PROJECTS based on public participation and attention, generating “clean, renewable” economic development at the service of the local community. Culture is capable of producing sustainable economies: there is an enormous difference between profit and benefit, between money and the development of an economy in favour of a local community, between offering a piece of bread or a dignified life based on culture and well-being.[15]

An emblematic example of this phenomenon can be seen in the conservation program for the prehistoric sculptures of Mont’e Prama, in Sardinia, implemented by the CCA in 2007 to 2011. By means of a long and nuanced conservation and communication program, the conservators made available a statuary collection of universal interest available to the local public. In this manner, conservation and heritage generate previously inexistent cultural tourism on the island, developing a new and sustainable economy based on the people’s own culture, for the benefit of local communities and not for profit of a few. 

Museo di Cabras, Sardinia: since beginning a conservation program for prehistoric Nuragic sculptures in 2014, the museum’s annual visitation has gone from 9,380 to 69,120 – an increase of 740%.

The Mont’e Prama project has produced tangible results which today affirm what we have imagined and predicted for so many years: that cultural heritage is an essential asset of modern civilization, and conservation is an important tool for its development and dissemination. The project was awarded with the Europa Nostra Prize and Public Choice Award in 2015 and The Best in Heritage Award in 2016, with the following motivation:

“The Jury were intrigued by the complexity of this restoration project, and impressed by its significance in developing our understanding of this under-appreciated culture. The jigsaw puzzle of reassembling the pieces, without any deep penetration of the original stone, and avoiding the use of drills or insertion of different materials, allows for the possibility of modifications and additions in the future on the images of the statues. All the restoration operations have been realized openly, with the opportunity for the public to visit the on-going works. The importance for the local population is clear, and enhances their identity with people who have preceded them on this grand island.”[16]

The conclusion of this discussion requires consideration of another critical issue in the management of conservation of cultural and natural properties: to what extent can we push ahead in facilitating and promoting access and fruition, without running risks of damaging or denaturing the properties themselves? We have already spoken of the vulnerability of heritage and the threshold levels of damage.  We could resolve the question by saying that the first limit on the use of a property must be respect for the threshold level for damage, beyond which any access or use must be managed with extreme caution.

There are also an increasing number of cases in the world which illustrate another extremely important criteria: the need to respect the intrinsic value of the property, its original meaning. Intrinsic values and significance are today being lost and disrupted due to uncontrolled use on the part of mass audiences, operating through the exploitive mechanisms of so-called ‘cultural tourism’, for speculative ends having little to do with culture or nature. Examples of this are seen in cruise-ship tourism, with the infamous cases of Venice and Dubrovnik, where it has been necessary to install entrance turnstiles to limit numbers, and one-way streets for pedestrian traffic. 

Dubrovnik: mass tourism has made it necessary to impose one-way streets for pedestrian traffic in parts of the city centre. During peak hours it is almost impossible to walk.

There are also the consequences of low priced air travel, as in the case of Alghero in Sardinia, where mass low-cost tourism is consuming the ancient city centre, giving rise to a decidedly negative damage/benefit balance.

More in general, there are countless cases of mass ‘unorganised’ tourism resulting in interminable line-ups and overcrowding in cultural places, such as at the Louvre, the Coliseum, or the Vatican Museums. These phenomena are so severe that the individual visitors can no longer enjoy the places. On the one hand they generate wealth in the short term, but at the same time such cases exemplify the total failure of the primary mission of intelligent management of cultural and natural sites and properties: the transmission of the meaning and value of the properties, and the diffusion of their CULTURAL AND NATURAL VALUES. This is the path that conservation must now follow, so that the further development of cultural tourism can generate lasting economic benefits and social well-being, through the preservation and sustainable fruition of the heritage.


[1] Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 5-16 June 1972. New York: UN, 1973. (

[2] Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society, Faro 27 October 2005.

Council of Europe Treaty Series – No. 199 (

[3] Gael de Guichen, “Forbes Prize Lecture 2006: A common definition of conservation and restoration”, Studies in Conservation, vol. 52, no. 1, pp. 69-73, 2007;

Gael de Guichen, “Conservation : A challenge to the profession”  in Museum Unesco, Paris ( in Vol XXXIV, No 1, 1982, page 4-5);

Gael de Guichen , « Scientists and the preservation of Cultural Heritage » in Proceedings of the European Symposium on Science, Technology and European Cultural Heritage , Bologna 13-16 June 1989 page 17-26 ;

Gael de Guichen, La conservation préventive…un changement profond de mentalité » in Cahiers d’études (no 1, Comité de Conservation ICOM-CC, 1995 page 4-6 );

Gael de Guichen, “Preventive Conservation: A mere fad or far reaching change” in Museum International, Unesco Paris No 201 ( Vol 51,No 1,1999, page 4-6 );

[4] “Terminology to characterize the conservation of tangible cultural heritage” Resolution adopted by the ICOM-CC membership at the 15th Triennial Conference, New Delhi, 22-26 September 2008

[5] Nardi R., “The conservation of mosaics in situ” in Conservation, The GCI Newsletter, vol 12,n.1 1997; Nardi R., Zizola C., “Archaeological mosaics: from detachment and transport to museums and storerooms to in situ conservation practice”, in ICCM International Committee for the Conservation of the Mosaic, Newsletter n. 11-2001, Rome 2001; Costanzi Cobau A., Nardi  R.: “In  situ consolidation of mosaics with techniques based on the use of lime” in ICCM Newsletter no.5,  Rome  1992.

[6]  Teutonico J.M., “Mosaikon, A Strategic Regional Program for the Conservation of Mosaics in the Mediterranean” in Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter, vol. 25, n. 2, Fall 2010.  Nardi R. “Mosaic Conservation Course (MCC) 2011-2016, a Program of the MOSAIKON Initiative: Mid-Program Review”. In: Teutonico J. M., Friedman L., Ben Abed A., Nardi R. (eds). Proceedings of the 12th Conference of the International Committee for the Conservation of Mosaics. The Conservation and Presentation of Mosaics: At What Cost? Alghero. Sardinia, October 27-31, 2014. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute. 250-256. 2017. Teutonico J.M., Friedman L., “MOSAIKON 2008-2018, Objectives, Outcomes, Opportunities” in Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter, vol.33, n.1, Spring 2018.

[7] “Terminology to characterize the conservation of tangible cultural heritage” Resolution adopted by the ICOM-CC membership at the 15th Triennial Conference, New Delhi, 22-26 September 2008

[8] Nardi R., “The Arch of Septimus Severus in the Roman Forum”, in ICOM-CC, 8th Triennial meeting Sydney, Australia 6-11 September. Los Angeles 1987.

[9] La Rocca E., Nardi R., “Preventive conservation and restoration: a matter of costs”, in Preprints of the Contributions to the IIC Triennial meeting Ottawa, 12-16 September 1994. Preventive Conservation: Practice, Theory and Research. London, 1994. 24-27. Nardi R., “The conservation of the Atrium of the Capitoline Museum” ICOM-CC, 11th Triennial Meeting, Edimbourgh, Scotland 1-6 September 1996. London 1996. Vol 2, 805-809

[10] Nardi R, “Per una carta della conservazione del mosaico”, in Acts of the 7th colloquium for the Italian Association for the study and conservation of the Pompeii mosaics, 22-25 March 2000, Paribeni, Andrea (ed.); AISCOM Ravenna: Edizioni del Girasole , 2001.  Stanley Price N., Burch R., Matero F.G. (eds) Conservation and management of Archaeological Sites, Selected papers from the colloquium “Reburial of Archaeological Sites, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA 17-21 March 2003. Vol 6, Numbers 3-4, London 2004.

[11] Nardi R. “A critical review of 25 years of training activities in archaeological conservation of the Centro di

Conservazione Archeologica of Rome (CCA)” in Engaging Conservation. Collaboration Across Discipline”, London 2017. 35-43 

[12] Nardi R., 1995. “Open-heart restoration: raising the awareness of the public”, ICOM-CC newsletter 1995, 9-11.

Nardi R., “Going public: a new approach to conservation education”, In: Museum international, ICOM, Parigi  1999.

Costanzi Cobau A., “Aperto per Restauro. Comunicare la conservazione”, in acts of the national congress of the IGIIC, Genoa 27-29 September 2004, Florence, 2004.

[13] De Guichen G, Conservation today and professional excellence…some questions, at The Best in Heritage, Key-note speach, Dibrovnik, Ottobre 2014, With kind permission of the author.

[14] Eugenio La Rocca, “La Repubblica”, 1 September 2018. Manacorda D., “Petrolio”, in De tutela: Idee a confronto per la salvaguardia del patrimonio culturale e paesaggistico”, edited by L. Carletti and C. Giometti, Pisa 2014, pp. 117-123

[15] Manacorda D., “Populonia 2011: tra ricerca, turismo e economia”, in Materiali per Populonia 10, edited by G.Facchin and M.Milletti, Pisa 2011, pp. 7-15. Montella M., Il Capitale Culturale. Macerata 2009


Roberto Nardi

Centro di Conservazione Archeologica (CCA), Roma.

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