The AICCM National Conference was held at the Arts Centre Melbourne from 13 to 15 November 2019. Entitled Making Conservation, each day of the conference centred around three major themes: making conservation connected, sustainable and innovative. The Australian distributor of quality archival storage products, Archival Survival, sponsored two students to attend the conference. And the Canberra-based fit-out company specialising in the design, fabrication, and installation of high-quality museum, gallery, and exhibition projects, Designcase, sponsored the attendance of another student. The lucky recipients of these places were Jessica Walsh, Julianne Bell and Grace Barrand, who will now take you through the many exciting, challenging and thought-provoking presentations that were shared at the conference.
Day 1 – Making Conservation Connected
The AICCM National Conference for 2019 kicked off with paper presentations, a panel discussion, lightning talks, and a video demonstration all surrounding the topic – Making Conservation Connected.
The keynote address for day one delivered by Brett Leavy, the presentation ‘Virtual Songlines: New Technologies for an Ancient Culture’, discussed his work merging cultural heritage and new media to ‘conserve the stories of our peoples’.
Leavy’s presentation left those in attendance inspired and humbled by the importance of connecting and conserving cultural heritage and the power of providing a tangible link to the intangible. The program, which utilises computer-generated imagery (CGI), virtual reality (VR), and geo-spatial movements, echoes the Australian landscape as it would have been in any space in time to conserve the heritage of First Nations. He explained that the trees seen in the landscape are based on tangible materials, for example a bow with connections to a particular region may suggest the type of wood which would have grown there at some point in time – and will continue to grow as you move about the virtual landscape! Virtual Songlines’ programs are innovation frontrunners for conserving intangible histories belonging to First Nations people, with their respectful and tangible new media landscapes.
Following this impressive demonstration was an informative presentation by Erina McCann and Jade Hadfield who discussed the ongoing Te Pasifika Gallery renewal project in Melbourne. Appropriately managing this emotional transition into a new space, Erina and Jade have placed First Nations people at the centre, listening to the aspirations of the Pacific community and engaging the knowledge of local voices whilst undertaking ‘Kaitiakitanga’ (guardianship) of the space, materials, and heritage. In the same thread, graduates from the Arnhem, Northern and Kimberley Artists, Aboriginal Corporation (ANKA) Art Workers Extension Program (AWEP) Specialist Certificate in Cross-Cultural Conservation and Heritage discussed the sense of community they found with their arts centres and collections, and considered the preventive conservation needs in remote regions.
The significance of providing conservation support in these communities was built upon further in the next segment with paper presentations by Gerald Preiss, Sabine Cotte and Lily Bennion, and Walter Chan. The delegates discussed the application of new media as a tool for cultural repatriation, lobbying for the ‘political’ conservation of an endangered heritage – the Marwari frescoes in Shekhawati, India, and passionate reflections concerned with the gentrification of shophouses in Hong Kong, Penang and Singapore and the effect it has on local communities.
It was exciting to hear some of the results achieved by ambitious conservators connecting conservation in new and innovative ways on day one and listen to established professionals considering how these modern tools may be useful to their own work. Mitch Cleghorn and Grace Barrand discussed a training project for building conservation in Burra, SA, to assess the social outcomes when educating construction professionals for work on heritage sites, who, without appropriate training, may be risking the buildings and themselves as a consequence. Kelly Leahey detailed the labour-intensive process of creating a public-access video series on conservation with the State Library of QLD. These empowering and inspiring videos are well loved within the conservation community and this was a rare insight into the intriguing creation process – thank you! Nicole O’Dowd explained the creation and continuing reviewal process involved in developing an online combined heritage training and work, health, and safety induction for the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. This was a fascinating look at a new method for heritage training with significant cost and time benefits for such a collaborative and multidisciplinary workplace. Kasi Albert wrapped up the paper presentations for the day with a review of the role conservators play in contemporary art contexts. Kasi persuasively discussed the differences and inadequacies of traditional understandings of conservation and advocated for conservators to become integral for installations and collaborations to make sure intangible elements of an artwork are appropriately documented.
Day one concluded with some quick-fire lightning talks. Nick Flood discussed his success creating a man-made rusticles display at the Australian National Maritime Museum and the positive audiences’ appetite for live-science demonstrations. Carmela Lonetti explained some of the difficulties and benefits involved in the Kylie on Stage exhibition touring in regional communities. Suzie Shaw disclosed some of the elements to look out for when conserving and displaying lights, and lighting heritage collections in her light-ning presentation. And Nicole Tse rounded things up with a claymation highlighting the importance for flexibility and change for dealing with decision making and materiality in tropical climates.
With the first day of the conference done and dusted, attendees treated themselves to nibbles and a glass of bubbly … or two, to celebrate and learn the winners of the AICCM awards! Check out the winners on the AICCM website here.
Day 2 – Making Conservation Sustainable
The second day of the conference was focused on sustainability, in all of its manifestations: environmental, cultural, social and economic. To begin the dialogue around these complex issues, our own MaryJo Lelyveld presented her keynote talk on developing a framework for sustainability principles for cultural materials conservation. Her stimulating presentation took the audience through the growth, collapse and adaptation cycle of our profession, while highlighting the need for resilience, advocacy and foresight to navigate the breadth of changes the global community faces. Keeping the conversation going, Rosie Cook gave a moving video presentation locating conservation as a means for ‘meaningful engagement in the face of inevitable near-term social collapse’. While a sobering topic, Rosie expertly articulated the key concepts of resilience, relinquishment and restoration, which offer a framework for considering the vital role of conservation during catastrophic climate change.
Rehan Scharenguival then presented his work on investigating alternative biocides for fluid preservation in glycol, with clove oil showing some promising mould-inhibitive effects. Wrapping up the morning sessions, Sheldon Teare discussed the impressive work conducted at the Australian Museum developing a process for composting as a preparation method for skeletons. By working with nature and the natural processes of composting, flesh was removed in six weeks with no chemicals required and utilising few resources; an innovative and sustainable technique.
Jessica Walsh kicked off the Environmental Sustainability session presenting her minor thesis research on green chemicals for varnish removal. Jessica assessed four commonly used chemicals against a controlled ‘green’ framework to understand the benefits and limitations of using such alternatives in the cleaning of oil-based surfaces. Amanda Pagliarino and Carolyn Murphy then introduced the Bizot Green Protocol for loans. The protocol moves away from restrictive autopilot flatline requirements, and instead creates a new normal considering local climates, increasing institutional capacity to achieve sustainable collection care. Amanda and Carolyn echoed MaryJo’s earlier sentiments of the need for advocacy and change within institutions and more broadly.
To wrap up the second session, the Students for Sustainable Actions in Cultural Materials Conservation panel explored the interconnectedness of environmental, social and cultural sustainability through their minor thesis projects. Jackjohn Morrison assessed cleaning solutions for plasticised Poly(vinyl Chloride) using a sustainable rubric considering health, financial, production and disposal impacts, finding no correlation between price and sustainability. Jessica Doyle then discussed her project supporting the volunteer-run Daylesford Historical Society through knowledge and skill sharing for social sustainability. Finally, Heather Berry presented on supporting cultural sustainability through ‘Eco-museums’, which she put into action working with the Offshore and Specialist Ships Australia group (OSSA). OSSA are taking cultural sustainability into their own hands after identifying a gap in the record and investing in the maintenance of their own collection.
The third session, Growing Conservation, explored exciting projects and approaches pushing our profession into new territory. Grimwade Centre PhD student Ainslee Meredith shared her valuable research in which she tackles conservation policy in Australia, or, more appropriately, the lack thereof, and argues for the distribution of conservation resources through need. Marcelle Scott discussed a pilot program for regional NSW developed between the Grimwade Centre, emerging conservators, AICCM and the Bathurst Regional Council. The program was an overwhelming success with positive outcomes for all involved and a clear articulation of conservation as a sustainable act in itself. Daniel Schwartz then presented on one of the program’s key projects, the Student Conservators at Melbourne (SC@M) RE-ORG Initiative, which he led at the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery (BRAG). The initiative provided BRAG with much-needed storage works ensuring the collection is well organised and accessible, students and emerging professional with hands-on experience, and flow-on benefits for the community.
The final session for day 2, the much-anticipated Conservation Skills Panel, was led by Alice Cannon, and aimed to discuss the perceived ‘skills shortage’, job security and overall sustainability of our profession. Alice gave an overview of the results from the 2019 skills survey and comparison with the 2009 skills gap audit. Results revealed the diverse array of skills emerging conservators are required to develop today from grappling with digital media, modern materials, and intangible heritage, to adjusting to the unstable global political and environmental conditions. Many passionate presentations followed, including one from Grace Barrand discussing how her one-year paid internship at the Art Gallery of New South Wales facilitated the transfer of specialised treatment skills and highlighted the need for more short and long term graduate project opportunities. Julian Bickersteth and David Stein gave their perspectives as employers in the private sector. Julian has observed recent incoming staff as less skilled, but more contextually aware, and David gave an analogy of the lifecycle of the profession, encouraging reinvention and evolution to move forward. Robyn Sloggett stressed that the issues conservators face today require ‘global and active citizens with higher order critical skills’, which the courses aimed to foster. This sentiment was echoed by Alison Wain who also pointed out the increasingly diverse range of conservation specialisations, which cannot all be covered in a university course. Once the discussion opened up to the audience, more issues were raised: the need for graduate positions, lack of funding available, working in private practice, mentoring opportunities, and the difficulties of the student experience. The passionate discussion behoves the need for more dialogue, planning and action, with the possibility of a dedicated skills meeting in the future.
A current global major issue, day 2 of the AICCM 2019 National Conference demonstrated that the conservation community in Australia is actively responding to and propelling sustainable practices in the cultural heritage sector and beyond. As an innovative profession, we have an opportunity and an obligation to incorporate sustainability principles into all aspects of our work to ensure not just our cultural heritage but our planet and practices receive the care, attention and respect required.
Day 3 – Making Conservation Innovative
Innovation was front and centre on the final day, with speakers triumphing the development and application of technology from a range of conservation perspectives. Dr Matthew Butler from Monash University gave an inspiring and sincere keynote address on opening access to museum collections for blind and low-vision visitors. Matthew discussed his experience with Bendigo Art Gallery over the past two years using multi-sensory and multi-modal supporting materials such as 3D printing, laser cutting, tablets and soundscapes to create more stimulating cultural experiences with works from the permanent collection. Walter Withers The Drover (1912, oil on canvas), for example, is brought to life through a 3D-printed bass relief of the image, complemented with the scent of gum leaves and the pastoral soundscape of working dogs, sheep and horses. Or for those with a more contemporary taste, a small 3D-printed version of Michael Doolan’s Happy Ending? (2014, 2014.6) sculpture is made available for handling, opening discussions on grief as visitors feel the facial expression of the mourning bear. Matthew concluded by forefronting the importance of inclusion, not only in terms of providing access to blind and low-vision visitors, but in terms of the involvement of all parties throughout the decision-making process to ensure that artist intent is maintained, that access is meaningful and sufficiently contextualised by appropriate guides or information sources, and, above all, that people of all abilities be stimulated and brought together in the enjoyment of art.
Stimulation turned electric with Jacinta Sander’s review of the Pleco electrolytic pen assembly, continuing the energy of ACMI conservator Candice Cranmer who spotlighted the upcoming development of ACMI’s Media Preservation Lab (MPL) in the previous lightning talk. Stephany Cheng, an Andrew W Mellon Fellow, gave an informative reflection on her testing of nanorestore gels to reduce soiling on a water damaged thangka appliqué at LACMA. Despite a somewhat disappointing outcome due to the unpredictable nature of the historic textile to the selected gel for testing, MAX DRY (high water retention), Stephany’s observations from her rigorous testing on a variety of gels and textiles materials was rich in quality.
I never thought I would see so many people quite so excited about spatulas, and even less did I ever expect to be one of them! At the trades fair, Archival Survival proudly displayed their new range of Casselli spatulas available for purchase, music to the ears of all those who enjoy the flex of these tools but sadly can’t afford the pilgrimage to Italy to top up their toolbox. Mark Chapman of Chapman & Bailey was also available to expand on his impressive sponsor presentation of the morning session, no doubt answering questions about indigenous Australian timber and aluminium stretchers.
Savouring their final drops of MS2A, known as liquid gold, paintings conservators in the room were particularly excited to hear about the development of a new-generation reduced ketone varnish resin, MS3. Carl Villis (NGV) and Deborah Lau (CSIRO) discussed the trialling and manufacture of the product—including testing the handling, workability, visual qualities, FTIR, ageing and colour analysis—now available for purchase through TALAS, with the hope of soon identifying an Australian distributor.
Sue Gatenby (MAAS) and Floriana Salvemini (ANSTO) presented joint research into the use of neutron transmission imaging to attribute an ancient Japanese katana sword in the MAAS collection. Floriana encouraged other institutions to also identify cultural heritage projects and discuss these with ANSTO, who offer specialised services in this area. Rosemary Goodall and Danielle Measday of Museums Victoria continued talk around materials analysis, although this time in identification of hazardous materials, namely mercury vapour in the storage cabinets of the MV collection. This survey investigated the efficacy of the mitigation strategies implemented in 2017, as well as including further checking of vapour build-up in collections such as dried crustaceans, bird eggs, feathers, hat making, wet specimens, medical equipment, geosciences and, the worst culprit of all, the mineralogy collection. To date, 332 cabinets have been measured in the MV store, and the team continues to make procedural improvements to continue vapour dissipation and safeguard staff health.
The natural sciences remained centre stage with Sarah Babister’s (MV) lightning talk on the incredible reassembly of a Karnak fulgurite (the time-lapse is one to see!), and Celia Cramer’s (MGNSW) investigation into the use of spectroscopy to connect the use of preservatives with object histories. Lunchtime chats were indulged in alongside macaroons, and afterwards MaryJo Lelyveld (NGV) and Ainslee Meredith (Grimwade Centre) discussed the upcoming Sustainable Collections Wiki. This wiki is intended to be a space for collating resources and the diverse work of conservators in the realm of sustainability, to be used as an evidence base to support advocacy efforts in the future.
Following on from Liz Carter’s (Sydney University) earlier talk on using near-infrared spectroscopy to identify deterioration levels in cellulose nitrate samples, including a dramatic decrease in spectrum collection speed from 20 to two seconds, Grimwade Centre PhD students drove us down the home stretch of the conference with all eyes on plastics. Julianne Bell gave an impressive technical overview of the OHRM (Online Heritage Resource Manager) database used to visualise the data of the ongoing plastics project, while Cancy Chu focused on her research on plastics in archives. Congratulations are in order to Evan Tindall for completing his PhD research, providing a poetic conclusion to the proceedings by presenting his research on 3D-printing materials. Of the polymers and parameters investigated, Evan found that ASA, PLA and Nylon 12 were the most stable against UV exposure, with ABS and MABS performing the worst. I found my thoughts reflecting on Matthew Butler’s presentation around creating accessible versions of art, and on the deeply social themes from the days before when considering the applicability of 3D-printed materials to restore war-damaged heritage materials, and I marvelled at the intimate and inherent links that exist between the diverse forms of conservation practice that had been discussed, debated and developed over the course of the conference.
Finally, an exciting announcement regarding the location of the next AICCM National Conference. Pack your shorts – in 2021 we’re heading to DARWIN!
The authors would like to sincerely thank Archival Survival and Designcase for their very generous sponsorship allowing them to attend and present their research at the conference, and for their dedication to maintaining quality in delivering archival materials of the best quality to Australian conservators.