Julian Bickersteth, International Conservation Services

This paper is a précis Julian Bickersteth presented at the 2015 AICCM Conference.

2014 saw Australia host the ICOM CC conference for the second time, the first being in Sydney in 1987. The museum world has changed substantially in the intervening 27 years. Has the museum conservator kept pace with those changes and where do they sit in the current museum hierarchy?

In 1987, I was at an early stage in my career, and it was the first time that Australia had hosted a major conservation conference. For us bright young conservators it seemed that the world was our oyster and we were going to conserve, if not the world, certainly anything we could get our hands on in Australia.

However technical expertise and focus on the detail has not always served conservators well as they navigate the politics and reality of the modern day museum environment. More perhaps than other museum disciplines they have tended to react against the unceasing search for greater efficiency in museums, with its intensification of work, relentless pressure, endless meetings, and less of the pleasure of a worthwhile task completed using one’s skills with achievement properly recognised.

If anything they have tended to look inwards as Jerry Podany, past President of both the American Institute for Conservation and The International Institute for Conservation has said,

“There is no doubt that conservation is far more complex than it was just a decade ago and that this complexity is a good thing. The profession has taken on much broader responsibility and enjoys the input of a larger community of expertise… But our conservation data… consists of unlinked case histories and fragmentary deterioration studies. Small groups convene to explore mutual interests and concerns without sufficient concern for inclusivity and outreach. And our profession remains, as has recently been noted, invisible to the population as a whole. It is time to change.”

Jerry has a further perspective in the US that the surge of conservation professionalism that was seen in the 1980s grew alongside education as key components of every museum program, but it is the former which has continued to grow where conservation funding world-wide has slipped back.

Why is it that of all those core museum processes that the ICOM Statutes recognise (acquiring, researching, conserving, communicating and exhibiting), conservation tends to be lumped more with the ‘blue collar’ end ( security, facilities maintenance etc) than the white collar roles ( curatorial, education etc).

It may be as simple as the lack of members of the conservation profession that have risen to become a museum director, and thus be able to participate in debates at museum director level. The June 2015 AIC report Charting the Digital landscape of the Conservation  Profession doesn’t mince words on this issue:

In cultural organisations conservation departments are often perceived as service fulfilment centres, a perception that diminishes their strategic role and value in an organisation. The role of conservation professionals within institutions also contributes to the problem. Conservators rarely are included on senior administrative teams, so their perspectives and expertise cannot be demonstrated more broadly among their institutional colleagues.

Conservators acknowledge that they bear some blame for this state of affairs. Collectively they have not made a convincing case for the value of their work in the context of their local institutions. Few conservators seek leadership opportunities, and leadership training in the profession is rare. Conservation professionals are hesitant to share information and slow to communicate their activities to the public. They do not enter into broader discussions in the cultural sector, and frequently are unaware of projects within their own profession that might have a disciplinary impact. They do not participate often enough in cross-sector meetings, public presentations, and other platforms where their values could be conveyed. For a profession that is so expansive in seeking information, conservators are insular when representing their own needs.

Let me say that I think this is a particularly gloomy view, as there is general consensus that the profession has matured from the youthful enthusiasm that was evident in 1987, and become much more ‘embedded in the system’. Conservators have become more focused on facilitating access to collections and offering up solutions to problems.

ICOM CC Education and Training Working Group’s recent survey has revealed useful data on where institutions see the future of conservation including  that where institutions are  seeking more skills, they are 93% in preventive, 80% in collection care and only 48% in interventive conservation.

I started out writing this paper wondering what had happened to that ‘conquer the world’ attitude conservators had in Sydney in 1987. But as I talked to senior players in the museum sector, both heads of conservation and directors, I realised that it had not disappeared, but matured. The unrealistic bits have been shorn away to reveal the reality of the world in which conservators now operate.  So what does this new generation of conservators look like? 

  • They are realistic about the role of conservation in museums and realise that communication with their peers is vital to ensure their voice is heard.
  • They are fundamentally positive people that may get great satisfaction from conserving objects and artworks, but see that there is little point in doing so if no one knows about it. They are therefore committed to access, education and outreach for conservation programs.
  • They are multidisciplinary, moving between hands on disciplines and the broader areas of preventive conservation and environmental management
  • They are into working as part of broader collection management teams using the tools such as risk management and significance assessments that now guide collection decisions. They realise that all objects are not equal, and strategic decisions need to be made about what can and cannot be treated by ascribing value as a fundamental part of good collection management. 
  • They focus on efficiency, seeing that getting clarity on what conservation  outcomes are trying to be achieved, whether the institution has the internal capacity to deliver such, and how those outcomes are planned, delivered and measured are all vital components of good collection management.

Am I guilty of ‘future-pacing’, i.e. projecting a future position that does not currently exist? I do not believe so, but we need to have a full and frank discussion on this issue.