Managing Risks to Collections—Student Perspectives

National News Categories: 
Publish date: 
14 Mar 2019
Author: 
Marie-Claire Petrowski and Elizabeth Gill

Marie-Claire Petrowski

As a student and graduate, it can be difficult to find spare time and funding to attend conferences locally, interstate or overseas. As a recent graduate of the Masters of Cultural Materials Conservation, I was extremely fortunate to be one of the recipients of a student bursary provided by AICCM and Archival Survival. This bursary enabled me to spend three days attending the conference ‘Managing Risks to Collections’. Events, such as this one, are always a great opportunity to listen to fellow colleagues, be reunited with old friends, meet new people (and not to mention enjoy the complimentary food and samples on offer!) More specifically, ‘Managing Risks to Collections’ provided conservators and professionals from other disciplines a platform to share and discuss their work and ideas on how to best manage risks that impact a wide range of collections in a variety of environments.

Being asked to summarise my experience of the event in about 500 words was a little daunting, as so much was shared over three full days of presentations and discussions. A couple of themes appeared to echo throughout the conference, which were also evident during my studies and internship. Collaboration, and the ability to work as a team, was consistently considered integral to the role of effective and successful conservators who are ultimately protectors of our cultural material. The key to this is understanding our own skillsets and limitations and to also cultivate an awareness of when we need to listen, show empathy, communicate, join forces with other disciplines in order to learn and achieve the best outcome. No-one knows it all. Donald Rumsfeld’s words from 2002 surfaced throughout the conference: ‘There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know’.

The responsibility of caring for our community’s private and public collections falls on those who are willingly, and at times not-so-willingly, thrust into the position of care. Often we, as carers, know exactly what needs to be done, but at other times we are faced with problems beyond our scope. Many presenters suggested these issues arise from a lack of funds, resources or knowledge of how to best protect certain materials, especially when dealing with more contemporary objects.  Some collections are also of unknown and questionable provenance or are simply taking up much needed space. Even when digitised or copied, these materials can create new storage and maintenance issues. 

Another general consensus that continuously arose was that prevention is better than cure. Summed up nicely in Caitlin Cass’s cartoon, which was presented during the conference, conservators must work with others more closely, especially curators, to determine what should and should not be brought into collections, what can be realistically cared for and stored/displayed as well as the legal ramifications of deaccessioning objects… even those which have gone missing.


Elizabeth Gill

I was fortunate enough to receive an AICCM Student Registration Bursary to attend the ‘Managing Risks to Collections’ conference held at Deakin Downtown in February. The conference theme focused on the ten agents of deterioration or change. Presenters gave papers, presented lightning talks and engaged in panel discussions. They addressed the current research, practical studies and new technologies relating to preventative and sustainable practices of taking care of collections.

As a student nearing the completion of a Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation and hoping to eventually work in the field of managing collections, the conference provided a wonderful opportunity not only to hear keynote speakers but to observe the collaborative nature of those working with collections, from a range of diverse institutions and organisations. It was a great opportunity to witness the openness of collection managers and conservators sharing experiences and to hear some of the issues and complications that can arise from caring for collections.

I attended the final day of the three-day conference; the focus was on Dissociation. There were four sessions on the day, Dissociation: Cataloguing and Digital being the first. The importance of identifying and managing the risks to time-based and audio-visual collections was discussed. The risks of dissociation of objects in collections in small, volunteer-run and regional museums in New South Wales with a discussion on digitisation as a means of addressing loss of information was also presented. The next presenter Lauren Mc Alary discussed the 'scary cupboard', being dissociated objects in collections that live in a state of uncertainty over ownership and that there are no laws surrounding disposing of objects in collections in Australia. The session finished with Jess Day from Museum Victoria showing us the impressive practical implementation of a bar-coding system that she and her colleagues employed to catalogue the unregistered palaeontology specimens at Museum Victoria.

Following some mini cake delights at morning tea, the second session Dissociation: Cultural Risk began with presentations about the importance of conserving intangible heritage and how tourism can help and impede this preservation. The challenges of distance and the practicalities of conservation and collection management in remote Northern Territory Indigenous communities was presented with some images of the beautiful weaving Carolyn McLennan had been working on with some women in these communities. Nyssa Mildwaters spoke about caring for the objects at the Otago Museum that have been separated from their originating communities and the recognition of a need for greater engagement with originating communities.

After lunch, the third session Risks in Context began. A discussion on the effectiveness and importance of documentation and contracts regarding collections commenced the session, followed by an eye-opening presentation about the destructive effects of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Gina Irish spoke about how the disaster plan in place at the time did not prepare them for this event.  Next, Ainslee Meredith spoke about a program implementation by the Grimwade Centre into the Master’s course. The program sought to embed an important and needed sustainable ethos and practices into conservation applications by students. The final presenter in this session Siren Deluxe from Auckland Museum was a highlight for me. She spoke openly and amusingly of the journey of building a team in her department of ‘Collection Care’. The presentation was a change from the previous talks as it drew attention to the people working in her department. She spoke of the positive outcomes for colleague relationships that come about when a team is managed well and the subsequent achievements that can come out of this atmosphere.

The day finished with a session on Risks and Collection Management and focussed on future directions for collection management followed by the final question and answer panel. The panel session verified the supportive nature of collection care amongst its carers with speakers and audiences openly sharing experiences and ideas.  The address at the conclusion of the conference by MaryJo Lelyveld brought to light the enormous amount of work the AICCM committee had done to organise the conference and bring together such a diverse range of professionals caring for their collections.

Many thanks to the AICCM for making this opportunity possible and for their on-going support of student conservators. For a student and emerging conservator to hear specialists in their fields involved in collection care was an amazing opportunity. The understandings and insights, new ideas and the practices shared by those involved in managing risks to the collections was enormously beneficial and will inform my future practices.