I was excited to attend the 2019 AICCM National Conference entitled Making Conservation held on 13–15 November at the Pavilion of the Arts Centre Melbourne, and I am happy to say that the excitement was apt. Looking back at the papers, lightning talks, video presentations, and panels, I feel that the conference gamely addressed a range of diverse, confronting, and pertinent topics from the conservation field. We heard voices directly from arts centre professionals working on Country, from freshly graduated students conducting projects in the laboratory and in the field, from experienced educators in academia both domestic and abroad, and from institution-based conservators tackling the shifting challenges of today’s world. In this report, I hope to capture a selection of these voices, and present some of my own takeaways and responses.
Day One: Making Conservation Connected
The first day’s theme of Making Conservation Connected illustrated conservation’s role in connecting communities to each other and to a community’s own heritage. The keynote speaker, Brett Leavy, set the tone when he demonstrated a geospatial database of stories from Australia’s First Nations called Virtual Songlines. Motivated by a desire to see Indigenous knowledge represented on screen, Brett developed the database to realistically render Australia’s historical geographical environment in virtual reality, creating a game where one can experience running through Country. The database includes sites of meaning like where to get food, animals that respond to the player’s actions and choices, and site-specific architecture. This collation of Indigenous knowledge is presented in order to spark a player’s imagination, which Brett described as the best tool for cultural preservation. Although he claims that he and his team are not sure of what they’re doing, I think many of us were impressed by how comprehensive and engaging this project is, and how well it’s achieved its goal of preserving identity through digital realities.
Another project that used digital technology to reach out to communities is the Caring for Collections video series by the conservation team at the State Library of Queensland. Kelly Leahey described how the video series was planned with the aim of empowering public audiences with conservation knowledge, enabling them to care for their own collections. Kelly recounted the lengthy process of trialling different project visions, scripts, and structures, that led to the eventual partnership with Smoke Creative. Working with a professional video studio that had taken the time to meet the conservation team and read the Library’s conservation publications proved to be highly beneficial. The studio was able to take a series of script drafts and ideas and condense them into an action plan with a clear vision, a key message, a targeted audience, and a specific emotional tone for the video series. The conservators were struck by how the studio writers articulated conservation concepts concisely and in an appealing way that felt relevant to social media audiences today. Kelly emphasised the importance of building relationships and collaborating with people outside of conservation, and the potential this has to empower communities.
The afternoon included a lively series of lightning talks, of which my favourite was by Nick Flood from the National Maritime Museum, explaining how a display of ‘rusticles’ was set up during the exhibition James Cameron: Challenging the Deep. The display used a combination of electrolysis and bacterial life to germinate rust-coloured, icicle-shaped growths (rusticles) on a metal sheet suspended in a glass case half-filled with water. As the metal sheet was shaped like a miniature ship, the immersed hull gave the illusion of a shipwreck rotting in deep waters, drawing in young audiences learning about corrosion and university researchers studying rusticles alike. To me, the project is an example of how materials knowledge and practical demonstrations can educate audiences in far-reaching and surprising ways.
Lastly, I was tickled by Nicole Tse’s animated video on decision-making in tropical climates. With a series of quick claymation scenes, the video demonstrated historical problems with cultural heritage preservation in tropical regions. Although necessarily addressing serious subject matter such as appropriation and loss, the video aimed to convey lived experiences without conferring judgement, which I thought was executed well. Ending on a scene where community members had entered into the museum space together with collectors and museum professionals, the video prompts the audience to consider how to play a role in bringing the real-life narrative to a happy ending.
Day Two: Making Conservation Sustainable
The second day centred on the wide-reaching concern of sustainability, addressing both the management of resources from the Earth and of the skills-base of the conservation practice. I found this juxtaposition intriguing, as it framed intangible knowledge and tangible materials as dual agents that play a role in sustaining the world as we know it.
The talks began with MaryJo Lelyveld’s keynote on sustainability in conservation, which articulated the need to re-examine assumptions of continued economic growth within conservation and in a global context. MaryJo asked the audience to consider that great technological and social change is not only necessary, but imminent, as the intertwined systems of the world approach collapse. The needs for adaptation and change were further set forth by Rosie Cook’s video presentation addressing the relevance of Deep Adaptation to conservation. Using the concept of resilience, Rosie framed the maintenance of cultural practice as a way to protect identity in the face of infrastructure collapse. By looking at cases where people have been forced to relocate or rebuild culture after catastrophic loss, Rosie highlighted the need for societies to consider what must be lost, so that things of value can be carried forward. I found these two papers deeply challenging, and I can see that continued reflection and decisive action will be the only way to build a sustainable future for culture.
A number of talks touched on alternative methods and materials for conservation, including Sheldon Teare’s use of composting to prepare skeletal specimens for preservation in natural science collections, and the testing of green chemicals as solvents for cleaning oil painting varnish by Jessica Walsh. During the panel discussion, suggestions were raised to further investigate the environmental impact, safety, and effectiveness of household approaches to cleaning, such as the use of vinegar and baking soda, and to consult the types of cleaning products used in certified green buildings like the Opera House. Overall, there was a desire to be open but critical about using new materials in conservation.
In the afternoon, I was struck by Ainslee Meredith’s insightful paper on cultural policy in Australia. Through an interrogation of values underlying the two cultural policies that have been implemented in the past, Ainslee highlighted the trend of evaluating culture with an instrumentalist approach. In other words, according to these policies, art is not seen as intrinsically valuable, but has value because of its links with other social goods. Demonstrating that conservation is providing a public good to citizens is key to an appeal for more government funding. Ainslee summarised the many gaps in Australia’s policies, including the right of access to cultural heritage, the inclusion of Indigenous peoples at the centres of institutions, fair pay, and public ownership and benefit. Ainslee impressed upon the audience that because policies are no longer implemented once the government changes, the cultural sector lacks sustainability, as demonstrated by the present lack of a national cultural policy.
The day closed with the Conservation Skills Summit, during which a panel of nine speakers presented their perspectives on the state of professional skills, jobs, training, and funding. Many noted that a two-year course structure is not suited to preparing students for a large range of specialised roles in the same way that a prolonged apprenticeship model used to for a single specialisation. Additionally, the role of conservator has evolved and diversified to different roles while requiring a greater emphasis on soft skills such as management, innovation and communication. Some advocated for longer, funded, supervised internships or projects to increase hand skills-focused training. Others considered the broadening of skills as critical for responding to a changing world with different needs. All recognised that constructive change could only be possible if the profession worked together to invest a great amount of time, attention, and funds. As the lively debate continued, the limited time did not allow for many ideas on how to increase advocacy and fundraising. I believe that the summit starkly highlighted the need for continued discussion and the development of actionable solutions.
Day Three: Making Conservation Innovative
Matthew Butler began the day with a nuanced talk on the inclusion of blind and low vision visitors in art spaces. While many organisations are working to increase access for a selection of the audience, Matthew pointed out that these strategies could still be improved if they result in the exclusion of the broader community. For example, the use of touch-friendly replicas of three-dimensional sculptures work best when they are integrated into the gallery space and appeal both to blind and sighted people. This allows for all to engage with the work together rather than separately. Matthew also described interpretation as a necessary step in inclusivity. When creating accessible versions of an artwork, many choices are made regarding what aspects to capture, and whether to describe something literally, figuratively, or emotionally. As different approaches are trialled, the ultimate aim is to lower barriers and find ways for everyone in the community to engage with art together.
I enjoyed hearing about the application of some new techniques, such as Jacinta Sanders’ demonstration of an affordable reproduction of the Pleco electrolyte pencil for the reduction of tarnishing in metals, and Stephany Cheng’s experimental trialling of nanogels for the cleaning of cotton, wool and silk textiles. I was particularly intrigued by Elizabeth Carter’s presentation of the successful application of near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy and principal component analysis (PCA) for the discernment between cellulose acetate and nitrate films. As someone who has struggled to use mid-infrared spectroscopy to identify gelatine-covered films, I am relieved that a highly efficient and non-destructive solution for identification appears to have been found.
The last session of lightning talks aptly included Danielle Measday and Sarah Babister’s project on a fulgurite – a narrow, forked glass tube created when sand is fused by lightning. The unusually long fulgurite had remained stored in 220 fragments for almost 30 years before its reassembly. By mapping an image of the original onto tracing paper, the fulgurite was gradually puzzled together and held into position with dressmaker pins. The fragments were then carefully tagged, documented, and joined with Paraloid B-72. Although the conservators admitted that the final arrangement is nearly impossible to verify, the appearance resembles past photos greatly. I found this an impressive restoration work on an incredibly delicate and unusual artefact.
The last session included Julianne Bell’s ongoing work on building the Online Heritage Resource Manager, a dynamic relational database for the study and documentation of plastic polymers in museum collections, and Evan Tindall’s accelerated ageing experiments that compared the stability of a range of 3D-printing plastics. I presented a paper on my ongoing research into the types, forms, and degradation trends of plastics in archives. Despite the late hour on the third day of a content-packed conference, I still received many useful suggestions for further explorations of my research, to the credit of the energy of the audience.
As the conference closed, it was announced that the next AICCM National Conference will be held in Darwin in August 2021. I for one am looking forward to being there. I hope to see many new and familiar faces, and to present the ultimate findings of my project at the time.
The challenge of reporting on a conference with a great number of excellent talks is the necessity of being selective, and even while writing this there are many more I wish I could have elaborated on. I have endeavoured to capture the range and vibrancy of ideas presented at this conference. Conservation professionals recognise the continued challenges to the profession and to the cultural heritage we are tasked with protecting. It gives me hope that conservators are lending their voices to mutual encouragement, critical examination, and constructive change.
I must express my thanks to the AICCM for supporting my attendance through the National Conference Bursary. I am grateful for the priceless opportunity to form new connections and to be inspired by new ideas. I have come away with a broadened perspective of conservation. As I continue with my research, I have a better idea of how to position my writing in relation to the field as a whole. I have been spurred to consider the pressing ideas of sustainability, connection and innovation in relation to what I choose to work on, and how I choose to approach it.