Review Article

Principles and standards of heritage recording

Kate Giles
Department of Archaeology
University of York
King's Manor
York YO1 7EP, UK

Books Reviewed
Click to buy

ROBIN LETELLIER with WERNER SCHMID & FRANÇOIS LEBLANC. Recording, documentation & information management for the conservation of heritage places: guiding principles. xviii+158 pages, numerous colour & b&w illustrations. Revised edition 2011 (first published by The Getty Conservation Institute in 2007). Shaftesbury: Donhead; 978-1-87339-494-6 hardback £38.

RAND EPPICH (ed.). Recording, documentation & information management for the conservation of heritage places: illustrated examples. xii+203 pages, numerous colour & b&w illustrations. Revised edition 2011 (first published by The Getty Conservation Institute in 2007). Shaftesbury: Donhead; 978-1-87339-494-6 hardback.

"Recording has become one of the key activities in conservation management of immoveable cultural heritage. We must make certain that future generations know what was done to a heritage place, why, when, and by whom. Producing adequate records of our actions, be it research, investigation, or treatment, not only is an ethical obligation for posterity but also implies immediate benefits in terms of project planning, interdisciplinary communication and evaluation of results"

(Letellier et al. 2011: xiii)

Giles image

This passage, taken from the executive summary of Letellier et al.'s 2011 volume, outlines the principle underpinning the two publications under review, recently updated and reprinted by the Donhead Press. The volumes have their origin in a 2002 Getty Conservation Institute project entitled RecorDIM (the Recording, Documentation and Information Management Initiative). This project had identified a growing recognition of the role of documentation within cultural heritage management, and of the need to create a set of guiding principles which could be accepted by a range of different professions and experts, across an international spectrum. One of the assets of these volumes is the number of internationally-acknowledged experts who were involved in the initial RecorDIM project. Emerging from one of the leading centres of conservation practice in the world, and drawing heavily on the work of ICOMOS and the World Heritage Centre, these volumes highlight the significance of recording and documentation as the foundation of cultural heritage management practice.

The first volume of the series, by Letellier, Schmid and Leblanc, sets the publication within an international policy context. There is a particularly useful discussion of ICOMOS' 1996 Principles for the recording of monuments, groups of buildings and sites (provided as Appendix A to the volume), unpacking its contents in the light of a series of questions about recording (why, who, how, what). This section offers students and non-specialists a valuable and critical reflection on the Principles, but it also identifies how the RecorDIM project sought to "bridge the gaps of technology, knowledge and skills between the 'providers' and 'users' of heritage records" (the aims of which are summarised in Appendix B). Another extremely useful resource is Appendix H, which provides an overview of existing charters and guidelines including the Athens and Venice Charters.

The remainder of the volume is structured in a manner which will be familiar to many working within the cultural heritage profession. An introductory 'overview', structured as a series of questions-and-answers summarises the more detailed guidance section which follows, for "top managers and other readers who are unable to read the entire book" (p. xiii). Although this might seem to duplicate the content of the volume, it is in fact a valuable resource for all those faced with trying to explain the significance of recording and documentation simply and clearly. Indeed, an accessible tone and clear, jargon-free style characterises the volume throughout. The text is laid out across an A3 page, divided into manageable sections by clear headings, supported by attractive graphics. Here, the guiding principles are set out as a series of questions: why? when? and who?

The remainder of the volume elaborates the guiding principles, again as a series of response to questions. How does heritage information fit into the conservation process? Why do we record and who produces records? What approaches ensure systematic documentation and good information management, and how are national heritage information policies and related programmes developed?

One of the great strengths of these sections is that they draw on international 'best-practice', outlining the principles of best practice in, for example, the heritage conservation process. Inevitably the challenge is therefore for such guidance not to get bogged down in, or locked into, the legislative or policy context of any one particular country or organisation. The volume successfully eschews this by avoiding extensive references in the main text but using the margins to highlight individual sites as examples of best practice. Many of the principles and methods set out here, such as the idea of 'levels of recording' (p. 37), the use of heritage recording pro formae (p. 41) or integrated project dossiers (pp. 52–3) will be variations on familiar systems already in place in many countries. Nevertheless, such guidance is often found spread across a range of policy documents and publications, and it is extremely useful to have it brought together in a single resource. There are, however, some gaps. Although the volume considers various information management issues, including the 'sharing' of information, there is very little consideration of the archiving of documentation data. In the UK, the Archaeology Data Service based in the University of York has taken a lead role with English Heritage in exploring these issues, particularly in relation to new technologies such as laser scanning.

The final section on national heritage information policies and related programmes in Letellier et al.'s volume once again sets out a series of overarching principles, supported in the margins of the text by a series of useful links to individual heritage recording practices, in particular from Canada. These are expanded in the case studies of the early nineteenth-century Fort Henry in Kingston (Ontario, Canada) (Appendices C and D) and Canada also forms the focus for Appendix G's discussion of Parks Canada's development of a national heritage information policy. Further appendices present a summary of metric survey techniques used by the English Heritage Metric Survey Team in the UK. The volume ends with an annotated bibliography which will again be a useful resource for students and professionals.

It is important to consider this volume in the context of its aims, as an outline of overarching principles and best practice, rather than a scholarly text engaging with the extensive literature in the field. Behind its production was undoubtedly extensive debate and discussion, but this did not filter through to the text. This may disappoint some in the profession, as well as students of cultural heritage or practitioners of associated professions such as buildings archaeologists, architects and conservationists, seeking to explore the tensions and conflicts which threaten or undermine the use of recording, documentation and information management in the conservation of heritage places.

For those working within beleaguered local authorities or professional outfits, especially during the current economic climate, there is some danger that volume 1 will be perceived as an idealised portrayal of the conservation process. This highlights the significance of the companion volume to Letellier et al., Eppich's Illustrated examples. This volume provides a series of examples of different kinds of conservation-led recording projects, within which different kinds of recording levels, survey technologies, documentation strategies and project outputs and impacts are discussed. As the course director of one of the leading programmes in Buildings Archaeology in the UK, I would recommend this volume and its predecessor, as an invaluable resource for demonstrating the role of recording in the context of cultural heritage management at an international scale.

This volume is divided into a series of case studies, written by contributors drawn from the world over. The projects are grouped according to their conservation aims. The first section considers the need for 'base recording', gathering data rapidly in the context of disasters, such as earthquakes in Spain (Crosby) or cultural challenges, such as the definition of ancestral cultural landscapes in Zimbabwe (Chikwanda). Different scales of documentation also feature in the section on condition assessment, from streetscapes in Muharraq, Bahrain (Elwazani & Lerma) to mosaics in St. Vitus' Cathedral, Prague (Eppich et. al). The management and analysis of data is also considered in the context of city inventories such as that of Zanzibar, eastern Africa (Siravo) and for informing the development of virtual solutions, as in Valencia Cathedral (Lerma & Perez). New technologies and tools form the basis for the volume's final section, including infrared, ground penetrating radar, aerial balloon photography and new photogrammetric methods of recording. Once again this volume is characterised by a clear layout, a succinct and accessible style of writing (which has been carefully edited to ensure consistency across the papers) and a lack of jargon. The case studies are supported by high-quality images and plans, which show recording and documentation in practice. The appendices to Eppich's volume provide a brief outline on how to incorporate the principles into teaching, by Mario Santana Quintero of the Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation (RLICC) at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium (Appendix A) and a list of relevant bodies and practitioners (Appendix B).

Although these two volumes are new editions of publications that first appeared five years ago, their format, layout and content continues to make them key reading for those studying, teaching and working in the conservation management profession. In discussing the project history of the RecorDIM initiative, Letellier notes that "given the absence of international agencies or institutions qualified to certify competency [...] it might be useful to insist that recorders acknowledge and embrace defined principles of recording where these exist." These volumes provide just such a foundation, and a reminder of the significance of recording and documentation as well as the need for trained professionals within cultural heritage management.