Newsletter Issue Number:
AICCM National Newsletter No 136 December 2016
Ian Cook

To be admitted to the AICCM Hall of Fame is a wonderful thing—a wonderful honour. It is a celebration, not simply a personal one, that acknowledges the many individuals who care about the things that make up our world. Of course caring for and about the material object is a starting point for a journey beyond fabric, about ideas, people and places.

It is so pleasing to be recognized by the AICCM in this way and it is satisfying to look back over fifty or more years and reflect on the emergence of the materials conservation profession in Australia and particularly the evolution of the Institute and the development of our profession through the aspirations and enthusiasms of many, many colleagues and supporters. Reflecting on my career, my scorecard probably reads ‘could have done better’, nevertheless, much fun and excitement was had on the journey.

The emergence of new technologies, especially related to the analysis of materials is exhilarating. I remember travelling in Europe and the US in the early seventies with the support of the Art Galleries Association of Australia and the Australia Council to investigate new systems and approaches to conservation—especially regarding materials analysis. Much of the instrumentation was so clunky at the time—both intensive to use and expensive to acquire. At the time there seemed little likelihood of widespread adoption across Australia, especially considering the limited number of conservators and the multitude of priorities requiring attention and development. I think I can say that we knew what we wanted but the tools just weren’t quite there (yet) for us, and neither was the time. So much has changed for the good.

One of our early and pivotal successes was to achieve wages parity with the scientific professions. I started my career as a cadet restorer at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, funded by the National Library of Australia, under the classification of trainee draughtsman—here was nothing that was seen as appropriate within the Commonwealth Public Service at the time. It took quite a few years to see a conservator classification sitting alongside other scientific professions in the Federal arena.

I remember the long campaign quite clearly with respect to the Commonwealth Government. What is remarkable about this venture was the support that came from the bureaucracy, from the Commonwealth Public Service Board and the collecting institutions, particularly, the National Library of Australia. Many conservators have benefitted from this initiative. I wonder if many have thought about how the conservator classification was created.

The gradual shift in the last few decades from what I call the tyranny of the material object to a broader dialogue about context, ideas and interpretation is such a relief because it represents a broadening of the conservation vision. It is gratifying to witness this deeper intellectual grounding of professional practice.

As Benjamin Schwartz states in his book The World of thought in Ancient China ‘As always the history of the past inevitably continues to be the history of the present.’ In this light I can’t resist sharing the following passage from Lin Yutang’s The Chinese Theory of Art, Translations from the Masters of Chinese Art. The passage is by Chang Yen-yüan (Zhang Yanyuan) from a text called Record of Famous Paintings to 841, dated 847 [CE].

Paintings and scripts should be entrusted to none but those who love them. One should not hold the pieces near a fire, nor look at them in windy places, or during meals, or while spitting, or having forgotten to wash the hands. Once Huan Hsüan loved to show his paintings and scripts to his guests. One of them, who was not an art lover, touched a painting while eating a pancake and caused a big blemish on the piece. Hsüan was stunned for a minute, and thereafter demanded that those who wished to look at them first washed their hands. A big, flat table should be provided in such homes and be dusted clean before unrolling the scrolls on it. In the case of big scrolls, a stand should be made on which to hang them. Frequent unrolling and exposure of scrolls prevents damage from damp.

The Hall of Fame Award is a great initiative and not just because I am now Famous. It is a wonderful thing to be a part of a tradition and I still feel the excitement and passion of that first day when I walked through the doors of the old conservation laboratory at the Art Gallery of NSW. Thank you to the Institute and thank you to the colleagues who have made this award possible.