Newsletter Issue Number:
AICCM National Newsletter No 162 December 2023
Hanna Sandgren

I was privileged to attend the AICCM 50+/-50 National Conference 2023 in Canberra, celebrating the organisation’s 50th anniversary. The conference was a jam-packed three-day event, with sessions that delved into the history of the AICCM, highlighted current practices in cultural materials conservation, and explored future challenges and opportunities for the profession.

A major theme was an intricate challenge that major collecting institutions now face. As conservators have worked hard to legitimise our position within the heritage sector, the associated gatekeeping has inadvertently hindered the integration of marginalised and less resourced voices in the care of their own cultural legacies. This tension underpinned a need, pointed out by many of the speakers, for a more inclusive, less siloed, approach to the preservation and interpretation of our cultural material.

For example, ‘The Nyingarn Project’ presented by Sophie Lewincamp and Vicki Cousins illustrated the urgency of this work, and the diversity of skills and knowledge required to record and re-dream endangered First Nations languages. Asti Sherring’s ‘Dynamic objects, evolving collections’ contributed to the discussion from a time-based media perspective, shifting the focus of conservation from static preservation to dynamic activation of cultural artefacts.

As an early career conservator working primarily in private practice, I appreciated this framing of conservators as reciprocal players who shape the cultural trajectory of objects and media, rather than passive caretakers. Although the responsibility feels great, many of the presentations reflected tangible, positive outcomes of projects in which conservators applied their skills in contexts beyond tightly controlled museum systems. Some notable examples included: Radhana Raheja, working thoughtfully amongst the desert dust in Rajasthan, Sabine Cotte and Sherryn Vardy designing a unique in situ display for a stage curtain in Bullumwaal, and Nicole Tse sharing lessons learnt from her work in tropical Southeast Asia.

Some sessions underscored the untapped potential for conservators to play a more substantial role in certain sectors of the heritage field. Sheldon Teare’s call for increased specialisation in the care of natural sciences collections highlighted a notable disparity in the ratio of conservators to objects compared to other categories. Additionally, Robyn Sloggett’s emphasis on the ongoing threat to heritage material in regional areas served as a reminder to broaden our focus and resources outside of major public collections.

The conference was also dotted with moments of levity. The screening of ‘pH 7 The Musical’ featuring some of the first students of conservation in Australia reminded us that curators have always, it seems, been foils to the work of a conservator. The AICCM choir, led by Ian Batterham, made its debut with the AICCM Anniversary Song during the conference dinner. It was a testament to the many and varied talents of conservators beyond the bench.

In conclusion, a sincere appreciation to the AICCM for providing the opportunity to participate in this conference. Being part of the 50th birthday celebrations was a thrilling experience, and I anticipate many more years of engaging discussions and advancements in the field.