When our graceful president, Jennifer O’Connell, opened the AICCM National Conference, she asked us to keep an open mind during the talks. I’m glad she did because what followed were three days of some pretty eye-opening and challenging ideas. Ideas that left me wondering if traditional conservation work, which I had dedicated my 20-year career towards, was redundant. Because on a sliding scale of what’s hot and what’s not, preserving intangible cultural heritage is hot and the conventional model of a conservator spending hours treating an individual artefact for future generations is not! For those of you who couldn’t make the conference, or, like me, may have been under a rock, preserving intangible cultural heritage is about finding the true stories of an artefact, place or culture, and the emotions, memories and practices that are connected to them. It’s about finding the people for whom these places or artefacts still have meaning, and engaging with the community about how they would like them conserved, or, better still, training the people so they may carry out the work themselves. It’s about figuring out the setting in which an artefact would be most authentic to the community who made it.
The first two talks illustrated beautifully what this actually looks like in practice. And what better way to kick off a conference than with a welcome dance from our First Nations people, as projected onto the screen, and led at the lectern by the keynote speaker, Brett Leavy. Brett is a self-titled ‘digital Aboriginal’, a descendent of the Kooma people, and director of Brisbane-based company Virtual Songlines. The projection was an example of the work Brett and his team do, using technology to conserve stories of First Nations people. For example, the background scenery behind the dancers was created digitally to reflect an authentic Australian landscape, pre-colonisation. Other projects have seen the team taking photos of Indigenous artefacts, modelling them in 3D, then putting them back in Country in virtual reality where they belong. Brett works with a range of professionals including archaeologists, forensics and Traditional Owners to make his creations accurate, and he also works with disadvantaged people to teach them digital imaging skills.
Erina McCann and Jade Hadfield have been similarly working to capture local intangible cultural heritage while engaged at Museum Victoria. Their project to reinvigorate the Te Pasifika Gallery has centred on connecting the Museum’s collection of Pacific artefacts to relevant communities living in Victoria. A key part of their work has been to set up new guidelines, based on input from the community groups, advising of the best way to tell the story of the Pacific. The overarching aim has been to create an environment void of barriers that is safe for everyone, and that nurtures collaboration and knowledge sharing. Ultimately this means the life and meaning of the collection is enhanced and everyone who visits will have a richer experience.
Having learnt how to Make Conservation Connected on the first day, day two was devoted to Making Conservation Sustainable. Again, the selection of keynote speaker was inspired as we had MaryJo Lelyveld, with her knowledge of foresight planning, lead us through what the future might look like for conservation and how we can best prepare ourselves as a profession to stay vital and sustainable. One important point she raised was how collections cannot grow indefinitely, and the need to perhaps review procedures for deaccessioning items so that this is done in a positive way, without feeling uncomfortable or apologetic. Rosie Cook followed with an excellent presentation, via videolink, looking at how we as conservators might respond to climate change, and she used framework developed by Jem Bendell known as Deep Adaptation. Carolyn Murphy from the Art Gallery of New South Wales talked about sustainable collections care and in particular about relaxing parameters for humidity and temperature to reduce energy costs. She advised that changes of this nature would be slow and, in a large institution, need to be supported from the top i.e. the director, who can negotiate with other directors from lending and borrowing institutions. The change then needs to be carried through all levels of governance, from building services to external contractors, registration and exhibitions. Carolyn advocated to move away from a set of numbers for environmental controls to a more nuanced approach. This was echoed by Jane Henderson, again via videolink, who gave an enlightening presentation about holistic collection care as taught at Cardiff University where she lectures. She talked about how we value cultural material, and how value is something to be identified and assessed by society, that it can be ‘multiple and disputable’and not always about a physical item lasting a long time. She encouraged conservators to consider more deeply how people want to use an item, and how this might impact our decisions.
Day three brought us Making Conservation Innovative and expanded our horizons yet again, starting with Matthew Butler’s incredible work making art more accessible to blind and low-vision people. The sense of touch becomes so much more important for these people when visiting a gallery, so in a project for the Bendigo Art Gallery Matthew has made replicas of key gallery pieces that can be handled. However, he also spoke of the need to integrate these experiences into the general gallery spaces as people with disabilities don’t necessarily want to be taken off to a little room on the side but, rather, may prefer to enjoy an exhibition together with their friends at the same time.
The AICCM Sustainable Collections Wiki page is currently in development and the aim is to feature case studies from all around Australia that illustrate how we are meeting the four key and interlocking areas of sustainability: economic, cultural, environmental, and social. It is envisaged that this shared space, open to editing by AICCM members, will provide a platform for posting information about policy work, recent research and innovations, and making work practices more sustainable. There were so many papers on day three that highlighted the amazing innovative work being done in Australia; however, one standout was the development of the new varnish for paintings conservation: MS3, as introduced by Carl Villis and Deb Lau.
By the end of the three days I no longer felt redundant but, rather, inspired and invigorated by the achievements of my peers. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that, as a freelance conservator, I am preserving intangible cultural heritage all the time. My clients bring me a family treasure, something that matters to them and that requires attention. As they describe the story of the treasure—where it was made, by which great aunt, how they inherited it—they share emotions, memories, family history, sometimes family squabbles. And I think that in these exchanges intangible cultural heritage is preserved. Furthermore, it is often through the process of bringing an item to me for conservation that this heritage lives on; for example, a cleaned watercolour is digitised and copies sent to family members, or an inscription is uncovered that instigates further research that adds to the story. I believe, therefore, that the role of the bench conservator is still valid because in preserving the physical artefact we are preserving the link to all those intangible things. That’s not to say the profession isn’t changing for the better and, as this conference highlighted, Australia is well and truly at the forefront of the changes. One can see in two recent posts from the Global Conservation Forum (aka ConsDistList) that the ideas presented at the conference are indeed present on the international stage: one was a job advertisement for a ‘Community-focused Conservation Summer Internship’ in Alaska; the other was an invitation to the ICON Annual Lecture in London, and the topic is, you guessed it, ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’.
I am grateful to the AICCM for making my attendance at this conference possible through the National Conference Bursary.