This is a summary of paper ‘Relinquishing ambulance chasing and engaging with the real threats to the preservation of Australia’s cultural record’ presented to the 2015 AICCM National Conference.
Arguments that advocate for cultural materials conservation generally take one of two forms – that conservators have the skills to ensure the past is available into the future; and/or that conservators have the skills to intervene to improve a current state for the future. Both posit conservation as a futurist activity.
On the other hand rhetoric around the future of the profession has been located within a very different framework, one where conservation is constantly under threat as a profession and that the future is, if not dismal, at least limited.
The problem is that these positions are logically incompatible.
Either conservators have the skills to examine the past and secure the future, or
Conservators do not have the skills and ability to secure the future, and are at the mercy of other decision-makers.
Put simply either conservators have agency into the future or they don’t. Given that a large amount of the profession’s work and hence its reputation is about effective decision-making, risk management and future planning, it is counterproductive to run a parallel dialogue about being unable to make-decisions, manage risks or plan for our own future. In doing so the profession appears disingenuous, claiming the ability to secure the future for objects but unable to secure the necessary skills base. These dual positions present a mixed message to those willing to invest in conservation: government, philanthropic organisations, influential thinkers with whom we need to engage, and the new generation of emerging professionals.
There are few secure statistics relating to conservation, but some extrapolation is possible. For example we know there are probably around 700 conservators in Australia (figures are shaky but assume 400 graduates from the University of Canberra program; 200 from the University of Melbourne; another 100 who have trained overseas or in other ways). These 700 professionals provide services to a population of 23 million Australians, comprising 16,295,463 voters; or 23,279 individual voters per conservator. Assuming half (11,639) have something they value enough to pay for its conservation, and half of this group (5,819) can afford to pay, and pay $20 per annum for conservation services this provides annual income of $116,380 per conservator. If we add to this funding from jobs in institutions, grants and philanthropic funding, then the potential increases substantially. So the issue is not one of oversupply, but of limited and ineffective market engagement and lack of proactivity in market development.
The next step then is to consider the market. There are four key informing documents relating to the Australian collections sector. The Pigott Report (1975) emphasized access and preservation. These important twin platforms informed the Heritage Collections Council (1997-2001), and a focus on collections held outside national collecting institutions. Key outcomes included Recollections: Caring for Collections across Australia (1998); Be Prepared: Guidelines for small museums for writing a disaster preparedness plan (2000); Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections (2001) and The National Conservation Policy for Australia’s Moveable Cultural Heritage 1995 (with the strategy added in 1998). Endorsed by Cultural Ministers Council, this significant document reflected both what conservators and those who sought conservation services considered important, and what governments were prepared to support. It talks to a broad constituency across government, non-government and community sectors; identifying the significance of diversity; the value of conservation; the need for access; the requirement for community-wide skills; and the necessity for relevant research.
The Deakin University Key Needs 2002 provided statistics on the collections sector, identifying National, State and local library organisations at 1,536 locations, National and State archives at 27 locations, and an unspecified number of collections operated by educational institutions (universities and schools). The study also identified 249 art museums/galleries, 411 historic properties and 1,389 other museums (p. 14). It also raised concerns about the lack of conservation expertise by those requiring conservation services (p. 67). This is a conversation that takes place regularly with private collectors, small museums, regional galleries, historical societies, and Aboriginal art centres and keeping places, and others.
Marcelle Scott identified an emerging focus on these constituencies, arguing that:
Extraordinary conservation will not only continue, but will increase the rate of its trajectory towards a more pluralistic, divergent community centred profession (Scott 2015 p. 10)
The 1995 National Policy provided a clear framework for conservation that continues to be relevant. Creating future political will and support requires access to relevant data sets that provide the critical contemporary context in which to argue for value and benefit. These are essential to enable conservators to lobby effectively, enter national debates and provide critical perspectives on the future directions of the profession. With this in mind the following program of research, reporting and publication, using a series of Green Papers to build data sets, is one approach that AICCM could employ in lobbying for its members.
Green Paper 1: Map the repositories for cultural material across Australia.
Green Paper 2: Identify and assess current structures that support the custodianship, care and use of this material.
Green Paper 3: Research and develop clear statements about the different kinds of significance and value such material represents.
Green Paper 4: Determine, quantitatively and qualitatively, the risks to this material.
Green Paper 5: Examine the kinds of structured approaches that will help mitigate these risks (access models, training, infrastructure, network development, funding models and the like).
White Paper: A Critical Response to Risks to the Survival of Australia’s Cultural Material
As MaryJo Lelyveld (2013) asserts:
When considering certain problems, conservators should be encouraged to imagine a range of futures that might prove problematic or preferable to their own professional aims or agenda and accordingly take action that advances the approach or re-designs an alternative.
This sustained and systematic approach equips the conservation profession to proactivity engage in thinking about the future in realistic, creative and productive ways.
Deakin University, 2002, A Study into the Key Needs of Collecting Institutions in the Heritage Sector, Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific, Report to the Heritage Collections Council, Canberra.
Lelyveld, M, 2013, ‘The accidental futurist: Using Causal Layered Analysis to understand conservation across time. Paper presented to the AICCM National Conference‘, Contexts for Conservation [online] (Adelaide 23 – 25 October 2013) [accessed 16 May 2015].
Pigott, P, 1975, National Museums in Australia 1975: Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections including the Report of the Planning Committee on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.
Scott, M, 2015. ‘Normal and extraordinary conservation knowledge: towards a post-normal theory of cultural materials conservation’ AICCM Bulletin, vol. 26, no.1, pp. 3-12.
Produced for the Heritage Collections Committee and published by the Commonwealth of Australia.
- The National Conservation Policy for Australia’s Moveable Cultural Heritage 1995 (with the strategy added in 1998).
- reCollections: Caring for Collections across Australia (1998)
- Be Prepared: Guidelines for small museums for writing a disaster preparedness plan (2000)
- Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections (2001)