DIGITAL DOCUMENTATION IN THE CONSERVATION OF CULTURAL HERITAGE: FINDING THE PRACTICAL IN BEST PRACTICE
Documentation of treatment is one of the central tenets of conservation as a profession, and a necessary aspect of the preservation of cultural heritage. Photographic documentation has been an essential technique for recording the nature of heritage objects and illustrating conservation procedures. The routine use of digital photography in recent years has opened many avenues to conservators, but also poses unique threats to the long-term stability of the conservation record. Digital documentation is subject to decay just as physical or "analogue" records are, with the stark difference that digital data corrupts absolutely, where physical records can remain legible through various stages of deterioration. It is therefore necessary to understand the options that conservators have with regards to preservation of their records for the future. The various guidelines presently available regarding digital documentation may be synthesized into a coherent "best practice" specific to digital conservation documentation. This practice, however, must be reconsidered within the framework of what is necessary to ensure that photographic records are preserved, versus what is feasible. In order to determine if conservators are aware of the limitations of digital technology, thirty practicing conservators were asked to respond to a questionnaire regarding their own documentation practices. The responses identified a lack of best practice, and indicated that there are multiple factors which prevent conservators from developing effective methods for creating, storing, and accessing documentation. To address this, a modified form of best practice, the "best practical" method, is developed as a series of guidelines with the intent of being feasible for practicing conservators. This method aims to reduce the time and economic costs required of best practice, while minimizing the risk to the conservation record. The "best practical" guidelines are being designed to be applicable to a wide range of professional contexts, from large public institutional conservators to independent private contractors. The significance of selection of documentation for long-term survival is also emphasized. The value of these guidelines lies in the identification of small changes to current practice that have the potential to make large differences in the amount of information preserved for future conservators, scholars, and other interested parties.