As part of the lead-up to the AICCM 10th Book, Paper and Photographic Materials Symposium, the organising committee asked some conservators of note to reflect on how our profession and our work has changed over the years. What advice would you give to someone starting out now? These reflections and revisitations take the form of ‘letters to a new conservator’, and touch on issues as diverse as treatment paradigms, prioritising work, the powers of persuasion, and finding the best pastries.
When I was a student at the University of Canberra in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I seem to remember spending most of my time in the dark, literally. Photography for condition and treatment reports was analogue. The 35mm black and white film was extracted from a fridge by unscrewing the hinged latch with a screwdriver rather than using the high-level security key to unlock the padlock that was there to stop students from getting into the fridge to use the film. A complicated dance was then performed involving object, tungsten lights, light meter, tripod and SLR camera. When everyone was finished with the roll it was magically developed and you discovered one or two negatives that bore a fleeting resemblance to the object you were inflicting your magic on. It was then that you descended into the dark room in the basement of the building and worked feverishly in the dark or under red lights listening to a ‘wireless’ announcing the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the anxiety levels of a Russian submariner. Some days later you would eventually emerge into the light with one or two prints that were useable, blinking like a newborn.
I remember an almost mystical lecture on digitization, well actually all I remember is ‘100100…’ and sarcastically thinking yep, that’s really going to impact on my life! How wrong I was. The use of digital cameras and technology has revolutionised the way we can quickly and accurately record the condition of the objects we work on. The internet has permitted the rapid transmission of knowledge and a platform for instant communication. In my student days the AICCM Newsletter was my regular quarterly reminder of the profession I was hoping to be a part of; today I go to the AICCM website whenever I like.
I was taught paper conservation by the late Robert Morrison, a chemist who was able to communicate eloquently what was known of the chemistry of paper and demonstrate the basic practical techniques a paper conservator needed to know. The paradigm was built on pH, deacidification, alkaline buffering, the Teas solubility chart, light bleaching, vacuum suction table work and as a last resort hydrogen peroxide. Other gifted conservators I have worked for showed me how necessity is often the mother of invention, performing complex permutations within this paradigm. Sometimes an object will submit to the paradigm, sometimes it will stubbornly resist.
I had a student from the University of Melbourne spend a couple of days in my lab recently; she made me aware of a new paradigm for paper conservation, one I had heard about but had not taken any notice of in terms of its application to paper conservation. Wolbers: conductivity, surfactants, gels, micro-emulsions. Once again I feel like a newborn emerging blinking from the dark room.
The treatment options are increasing and it has never been more exciting to be a conservator. Having said that, paper is a delicate and vulnerable thing. It amazes me that even today this is too often forgotten. The disappearance of study rooms and galleries dedicated to the regular short exhibition of works on paper and the rise of semi-permanent, thematic, mixed media exhibitions that include works on paper has in my experience led to an increased risk of permanent damage. Nuanced and difficult conversations are needed. Our prime responsibility must always be to minimise damage but maximise meaningful access. It seems to me that we should still be judged on what we have preserved as much as on what we have restored.
Cobus van Breda, paper conservator, 2018
It was 1978 when I began studying paper conservation at the University of Canberra. Bob Morrison was my lecturer, the greatly missed Bob Morrison. Bob was a great teacher and inspired me to devote myself to paper conservation. He got most things right and I still use much of what he taught me.
However, he got some things wrong; I learned this over time and through making many mistakes.
A key thing was the notion that a conservator cannot make value judgements about objects. All objects are treated the same was the mantra. But we can’t do this—there are millions of historical objects out there and we simply can’t treat them all the same. So conservators must prioritise their work. How do we do this?
Do we prioritise based on:
- The potential for the object to degrade?
- The significance/value of the object?
- The desire to exhibit the object?
Which of these is most important?
An object may be in poor condition but, with proper storage and care, may not get any worse. Certain materials are prone to rapid deterioration—should we target these first? Examples could include audiovisual formats or highly acidic papers. Or, should highly significant get bumped up the hierarchy, even if its condition is still fair? And if we wish to display an object should it receive major attention while items in storage deteriorate?
These are questions that I had to wrestle with in creating a conservation work plan at the National Archives of Australia (NAA). The NAA collection comprises about a billion pieces of paper of hugely varying significance and quality. It also includes audiovisual material, photographs, bound volumes and even textiles. What do you treat first? And can you justify intensive conservation as opposed to preventive approaches?
In response: of course you can justify intensive conservation on individual items but you have to target them very carefully and at the same time not neglect the rest of your collection.
Let’s jump back in time.
I came out of the Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE) in 1980 with a set of skills and a notion that I would sit in my lab and be presented with a stream of items that I would apply these skills to. I entered an organisation where conservators were the white-coated people who sat at the bench mending things. There was little say as to what things were mended—these decisions were made elsewhere.
Early on I was given a very tatty file of papers to treat. I immediately applied a backing technique—tension backing—to every page of the file. This took days!
It was not a very important file—just one that a researcher had requested. Someone thought it was a bit tatty and sent it to conservation.
Was this the best way to spend my time?
Over subsequent months and years I slowly came to the realisation that, as a conservator, I needed to learn about the best way to spend my time—what was worth doing and what was not. I realised I needed to take the lead more. This involved getting involved in the decision-making process and educating archivists and curators in the basics of conservation. In this way my time would be better spent and we could better help the collection to survive into the future.
I came to develop a sliding scale of treatment approaches. These could include:
- Do nothing—the object is OK for now
- Improve the housing of the item
- Carry out basic flattening and mending
- Place tatty folios in plastic bags
- Make handling recommendations
All of these were quick and could ensure that an object was stabilised.
In this way the conservation section could spend more time on more useful activities, such as surveying the collection, treating identified iconic items with specific conservation problems and developing a proper preventive conservation program. It also allowed us to pay particular attention to at-risk formats and materials such as cellulose acetate film and iron-gall ink documents, and to conduct research into specific preservation issues and materials.
One of my last tasks before retiring from the NAA was to develop a preservation strategy that delineated the way preservation work would be done. It was based on what I had learnt in the previous 30 years, and is partly summarised above. I hope my experience can help paper conservators in the future, particularly those looking after large documentary collections to better approach the daunting task they have in front of them!
Writing from the Gulf of Carpentaria, August 2018
Congratulations and welcome to the fold. Your conservation colleagues are more likely than others to be populated by details-oriented obsessive professionals who will know the best places for coffee, the best and cheapest (because more than likely you will lag behind in the salary stakes) places for pho, for dumplings, and that one place that doesn’t look like anything but sells the world’s best pastries and baguettes.
Not long into your career you will be excited when you actually get more than an hour’s bench time before that meeting beckons, or a complex treatment that exercises your mind and technical abilities.
You will find your skill for examining detail and understanding the significance of the minutiae, treasured in our profession, will not necessarily be met with the same appreciation by management. Nor will your definition of long-term planning necessarily be the time-frame others in your organisation were imagining.
You may face a career crossroad when deciding whether moving away from conservation ‘bench work’ into management is a career progression or whether time away from the bench is progression at all.
Half-way through your career, just when you were thinking of switching careers completely, an innocuous-looking object, perhaps even the most ‘ordinary’ of objects, will hold your attention longer than it should and you will rediscover your love of conservation and its role in illuminating stories of people and place. It will remind you of why you wanted to be a conservator in the first place.
And though you may have chosen a career focussed on objects and not people, you will more and more be called on to share your knowledge and to engage with people—those people will be the creators, the owners, the community or descendants of the objects who care for those objects as much as you do and you will feel pleased after all that you are a conservator.
Conservation will take you out of your comfort zone; some treatments will not go as planned and you will spend long hours thinking about what you might have done differently and wished that you had never embarked on that treatment in the first place. When a tricky treatment goes exactly to plan you will feel relief and a sense of satisfaction when it finally goes on exhibition or is once again available to researchers—if only they knew.
The conservators you get to know will bear no resemblance to conservators in movies or books—there will be no time to conserve that book, manuscript, painting and solve that homicide. Then again—how well do we really know our colleagues, eh?
Vicki-Anne Heikell, paper conservator, 2018
Hello fellow professional!
Congrats on making it through uni and all the chemistry!
I started my conservation training when I was 18 and I’m still learning at 52. We all still have a lot to learn, but getting there is half the fun. I was accepted into the Canberra College of Advanced Education Bachelor of Applied Science course straight out of school. At that time the course only took 12 people a year, so I was lucky to get a spot. If I didn’t get it, I would have probably stayed in my small rural town and taken secretarial studies at the local TAFE. But I did get in, and now I’m an Assistant Director of Preservation at a national institution. Sweet.
As students, we had three hour lecture/tutorials in the morning and three hour practical sessions in the afternoon. We were introduced to all material types—ethnographic, textiles, paintings, metals, ceramics, and of course paper. Initially I was going to specialise in glass and ceramics, but then was convinced to go into paper. I also got lucky and failed a chemistry unit in first year. This meant I had to hang around college for an extra semester which gave me the opportunity to study photographic conservation, the first time it was ever offered. Sweet, again.
I managed to graduate in 1987, and walked straight in to a full-time job at the Australian Archives in Canberra.
I’ve mostly been a conservator of archival material, so I haven’t had the big, sexy object treatments with all the research, analysis, complex treatment and symposium papers involved in that. I’ve looked after unique, irreplaceable material that members of the public, staff and VIPs get to handle, flip through and flip through and photograph. While we provide guidance to ensure our collection is protected, there is no rarefied gallery atmosphere in an Archives Reading Room. Members of the public come in and leaf through their father’s war service record, or their grandmother’s immigration record. They are things that directly touch peoples’ hearts.
The public perception of archival materials is that they are ‘dusty old files’, boring records of a boring bureaucracy. They are files, but they won’t be dusty if the preventive conservation system is working properly. And they aren’t boring—we hold legislation relating to the Aboriginal referendum, the White Australia policy, the Whitlam dismissal, land rights, and loads of other Government decisions.
Archival preservation has a much greater emphasis on reformatting than in other areas of conservation. It’s a bit hard to reformat Blue Poles but if it’s just information people are after, an object can be made accessible via digitisation, microfilming and even photocopying. Digitisation is becoming a driving force in the preservation of archives and we are now also having to deal with born digital records— emails, documents, spreadsheets, databases, image files, PDFs. Try making them accessible for ever in the face of technological obsolescence.
One of the best things about being a conservator are the people you get to work with—people from quite diverse backgrounds but all with the common thread of wanting to look after our cultural heritage. I work with a fantastic team and don’t want to leave them.
Anyway, enough rambling from a tired old woman—get out there in whatever way you can and have fun.
What advice would I give to a new conservator? The best way for me to think about that is to think what advice I would give my brand new conservator self, if I could time-travel. And although the things I will say may not sound sexy or exciting, they actually are because they are the things I’ve learned along the way that have helped me to advocate for conservation and for collections, and to influence the way that is done and the level of resourcing that it receives (although the latter is an ongoing and somewhat dispiriting battle).
Most of my advice is not related to the practice and profession of conservation itself, but more about how you do your work and how you interact with those around you. As my career has been almost entirely based in government-funded institutions both here in Australia and in the UK, with some consultancy work in NZ, whatever I say will be based on that context.
Speaking of context—the context in which you work is (almost) everything. Context will shape what is required of you, the resources you have to meet those requirements, the types of things you are working and who your clients actually are…oh, and by the way: the items or collections are not your clients. So get to know your context—knowing its nuances can be very helpful and incredibly interesting.
Be wary of letting your passion for what you do and what you believe in turn into evangelism. Evangelism is much more likely to frame the world in terms of black and white and miss those all-important shades of grey. Such arguments can be seen through very easily, and worse you could be dismissed as Henny Penny—always saying the sky is going to fall in—when the evidence before the eyes of the beholder is that nothing has changed. It is unfortunate, but I have seen conservatorssidelined in meetings and projects directly because of their (over-)passionate delivery and their inflexibility.
Craft your messages to take into account the fact that people look to the evidence before their eyes and we are often dealing with changes that are gradual and might continue to happen in the dark in a storage box.
One of the most powerful skills in your armoury is your ability to communicate effectively and persuade others. I gave a paper at the 2011 AICCM conference called ‘The Language of Persuasion’, in which my co-author and I looked back to Aristotle ‘who divided persuasion into three components—ethos, concerning the credibility and moral competence of the source of the message; logos, concerning the rationality and logicality of the message itself; and pathos, the emotions of the audience. For Aristotle, in order to persuade an audience one needs to establish the author as reliable and ethical, to appeal to audience rationality and also to have an understanding of the emotions of the audience’.
So persuade, don’t preach. Persuade by knowing your audience and knowing the context of your work. Your argument will not appear rational, if you are trying to get support for something the organisation cannot afford, does not want, is not a priority, or is not supported by evidence. So take the same care to develop and deliver your messages about the objects in your care as you do in developing a treatment approach and then carrying out the treatment. Whittle and mould and shape your message…try not to use it as a hammer… it doesn’t work well. Things get broken.
Penultimately, you know what you do as a conservator is important. You know we have expertise and skills that are specialised and special. Whether you are in a collecting institution or running you own business look at ways you can demonstrate and communicate the value of your work within the broader context of heritage preservation, without the aid of a soapbox!
And finally…have fun and enjoy the privilege of being a conservator, because it is a great privilege. Remember we get to touch things other people aren’t allowed to.
Director, Preservation Services
National Library of Australia