‘Modern Conservation. Modern Constraints. Modern Conveniences’: the theme for the Icon Book & Paper Group 2021 conference (4–7 October), ‘ModCons’ was wholly appropriate for the current climate, with social and environmental issues at the forefront of our minds and increasingly intersecting with conservation practice. While feeling the modern constraints of Lockdown 6.0 in Melbourne, I logged onto the interactive ‘Accelevents’ conference platform to enjoy the modern conveniences of the brave new world of interactive online events. Through a mix of pre-recorded talks and tours, followed by live Q&As with presenters, the conference explored efforts to evolve the book and paper specialisation, drawing on modern advocacy and finding solutions to current challenges. Congratulations must go to the Icon BPG conference team for assembling a strong program of wide-ranging topics, bringing together pertinent issues, and facilitating thought-provoking discussions. Here are a few highlights:
Diversity and inclusion
Questions of diversity and inclusion were woven through many presentations; chiefly, how conservators might address a lack of diversity while working on material that holds varied histories and cultures. Building on her paper recently published in the Journal of the Institute of Conservation, keynote Jane Henderson discussed ‘Inconvenient questions and the question of neutrality’, exposing unexamined concepts such as the decision by conservators to make their work ‘invisible’ or undetectable. Understanding that the objects we conserve can hold multiple meanings for different people simultaneously, what exists merely as ‘data’ to one person, could elicit a strong emotional response in another. We conserve the values and connections of objects, as much as the objects themselves. Therefore, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, deciding to conserve an object involves a value judgement and, in this sense, conservation cannot be ‘neutral’ or apolitical. Recognising this, Hoa Huynh and Keyeele Lawler-Dormer presented a useful decolonisation framework in their treatment of WD Campbell’s Aboriginal Carvings, illustrating the important active social-cultural role conservation can have in practice. Through intentional actions and an awareness of systemic bias, they demonstrated how conservation can facilitate access and experience.
Collaboration and knowledge sharing were strong themes in a presentation from the Hirayama Studio at the British Museum, led by Carol Weiss but jointly delivered by the whole team. They displayed the value of a diverse team that fosters collaborative partnerships, and respect for different artforms; where differences of opinion and friction can be productive, provided there is a work culture based on mutual respect, and individuals are able to ask questions and clearly articulate the reasoning behind their decisions.
Ample time spent at home or away from the bench during the pandemic has encouraged many to reflect more critically on our professional practice. Are our existing processes and frameworks still effective, or should we foster new ways of working? Dynamic sessions, such as the closing discussion on ‘Mistakes and Reflections’ and ‘TNA CCD/IconBPG Roundtable on Measuring Impact in Conservation Practice’ were refreshing, with many speakers advocating for greater humility, openness, and accountability in professional practice. Dr Lora Angelova reflected on the growing consensus for research activities to be more participatory and interdisciplinary, shifting away from doing research for users to research with users where, ultimately, stakeholders should become equal designers and contributors. Similarly, Rachel Minnott highlighted the need for conservators to recognise their position of power when interacting with marginalised or traditionally excluded communities and always be conscious of motivations for collecting data.
Modern tools, treatments and techniques
The theme of collaboration and knowledge-sharing extended to presentations on new tools, techniques, and treatments. Sonia Schwoll and Dominic Oldman introduced the National Archives’ ResearchSpace project, a more flexible, sustainable web-based system for recording and disseminating conservation knowledge. Creative thinking was demonstrated by Roger Williams’ latest revisions to the Adaptable Conservation Book Support and Ilaria Camerini, whose research into leather red-rot and the potential use of nano-collagen for consolidation has shown promising results.
Jen Bowens’ comprehensive overview of contemporary paper sculptures (based on a survey of contemporary paper artists) identified a gap between the techniques documented in conservation literature (predominantly papier mâché) and techniques used by artists today. This paper also touched on many of the modern material quandaries faced by conservators, such as the variety of artist-applied media and coatings, where the efficacy and long-term effects are largely unknown. One example is oil media on paper, a topic examined by Penelope Banou and Athina Alexopoulou. They studied the dispersion of oil through paper structures and its solidification upon aging, noting that both the type of oil and paper type affect deterioration processes. Another dilemma shared by contemporary paper sculptures – reconciling a flat-work conservation treatment approach with three-dimensional forms – was raised by Marya Muzart in a treatment method developed to avoid dissociation to pre-12th century repairs on Dunhuang scroll manuscripts. Determining the best approach for the long-term preservation of contemporary artworks, while grappling with the practicalities of maintaining artwork integrity was another issue, highlighted by Cancy Chu’s investigation into the efficacy of interleaving materials for plasticised PVC slip-cover notebooks in the artwork and archive Chinese Bible at AGNSW.
Considering how conservators might incorporate sustainable decisions into our work, Claire McGuire advocated for the role of culture in sustainable development and utilising standard-setting instruments to find feasible solutions in day-to-day work. Morgane Lirette outlined practical actions taken by the conservation department in establishing a Green Network at the British Library, aimed at helping staff find agency through their workplace.
Several speakers also contemplated the social sustainability of conservation. Describing a sustainable system as ‘one that maintains its own viability’, Bridgit Mitchell discussed the change in mindset professionals should adopt to create more sustainable entrepreneurship in the conservation sector. Ruth Stevens explained how community interest company (CIC) ‘Impact Heritage’ was established during lockdown as a means of improving access to conservation services and diversity within the profession. Stressing the need for meaningful access, Jane Henderson asked us to consider how we can enable better experiences with collections, particularly for communities that have been systematically excluded over time. This was reinforced by Dr Susannah Hellman and Rachel Sawicki who illustrated the importance of building equitable relationships and respectful partnerships through community-focused initiatives while preparing Cook and the Pacific at the National Library Australia.
The platform ‘Accelevents’ functioned well, allowing participants to chat live during the pre-recorded talks and join ‘breakout rooms’ to continue conversations and share their own contributions. Poster presentations were also pre-recorded, with the posters available to attendees for download. Behind-the-scenes tours and workshops broke up the presentations and offered some welcome virtual travel escapism. Attendees were transported to conservation studios at the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Conservation (Mexico), National Museum History at Chapultepec Castle (Mexico City), Museu Paulista (Sao Paulo), Lambeth Palace Library (UK) and, closer to home, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. A tour of the Paper Foundation (UK), (which has inherited much of the equipment and intangible knowledge from Griffen Mill) had an especially soothing, dream-like quality when viewed by this bleary-eyed paper conservator at 2am. Attendees were also given windows into the difficult conditions when undertaking conservation projects in the extreme climate of Timbuktu and the active conflict zone of Kabul, with generous and sensitive keynotes from Dr Shamil Jeppie and Dr Richard Mulholland.
While the time difference meant live participation required some liberal caffeine consumption, overall the online platform facilitated greater accessibility, allowing participants from all over the world to engage in proceedings and affording presenters a larger audience. Indeed, conference organisers noted a higher-than-usual number of registrations from outside the UK. All sessions were recorded (with closed captions) and available for 30 days, providing ample time to re-watch, reflect on and thoroughly digest information at the viewer’s own pace, with the ability to pause, fast-forward and rewind talks—undoubtably an advantage for those who are time-conscious or have English as a second language. When we talk about sustainability and enhancing diversity within the profession, the convenience and flexibility offered by online formats can only be a good thing—giving access to the most current research, without the cost and material-waste of traditional conferences.