Newsletter Issue Number:
AICCM National Newsletter No 140 December 2017
MaryJo Lelyveld

At the 2017 AICCM National Conference I presented a paper on advocacy in conservation[1] that sums up my observations and thoughts following my time as AICCM President. The paper outlined the history of conservation advocacy in Australia arguing that historical support for conservation was largely a result of federal and government initiatives responding to the social and cultural interests of their time, namely the innovation of the heritage preservation industry during a time of national identity formation. It went on to reason that in the current context, there is greater onus on the profession to argue its cause but that our advocacy language is under-developed, commonly divergent and potentially ‘too idealistic’[2]. I then used a number of theories to help explain the current context, map the diversity and complexity and develop advocacy themes within these different contexts. It ended with a proposal for The Conservator’s Manifesto.

Given the importance of advocacy, I sincerely asked for feedback and received two general responses. 1. I didn’t understand it. 2. I support the idea of a Conservator’s Manifesto! In order to take steps towards the latter, it is important to address the former. This rejoinder is an attempt to better explain the point of the paper and so pave the way for the development of The Conservator’s Manifesto.

In response to ‘I didn’t understand it’, there are a two main reasons for this:

  • It was confusing. I tried to squeeze too much content (4 theories no less!) into one talk[3]. But given the topic at hand, there is no meaningful, easy and straight forward answer.
  • I did not give a clear explanation for the focus of the paper. Whilst it was explained as a paper about advocacy, it was also a paper about ethics and professional relevance and the future(s) of the profession. So whilst the paper asked the question “What are we advocating for?” it should also have asked and “how do we justify ourselves against…?” Advocacy requires articulating the aims and claims of the lobbying group (e.g. conservators) but it is also helpful to anticipate and respectfully consider the counter-claims or questions that decision makers may have when considering our cause.

The question “what are we advocating for?” is not a simple one to answer. As AICCM President, the varied expectations and experiences of members becomes clear. When asked what we should advocate for, there are not only multiple answers but seemingly competing arguments: People-centred conservation; a re-focus on bench skills; developing skills and knowledge in the preservation of time based media and contemporary art; intergenerational skills transfer; promotion of science and technical art history; promotion of skills and crafts(person)ship; sustainability; more resources; growth of jobs; fewer graduates. This makes the task of advocating on behalf of the profession a difficult one. What should our advocacy focus be? The varied needs of members or a common vision?

The organisation or bodies who have the agency to act on behalf of these causes (ie. the advocacy audience) vary but include policy-makers, educational institutions, employers (both private and public sector) and philanthropic bodies. Each have their own agenda and interests as well as problems that they are trying to solve. In making their assessment on the value of our cause and inclusion within a policy and funding framework, most will rely on quantitative and qualitative data delivered by an authoritative and coherent voice.

The collection of data will be critical to presenting the AICCM as a respected voice in the heritage field. What data is required will of course depend on the question being asked and by whom but perhaps collating data and case studies that address the following common criticisms of conservation is a way of prioritising our efforts.

The trouble with conservation…  

A lot of great things are said about the work of the conservator. There is usually awe at the patience and detail involved with our work and appreciation from clients and a grateful public that someone is so deeply invested in looking after ‘this stuff’. If we could better convert general public gratitude and interest into lobbying and financial support, we would be half-way to achieving our goal to “sustain and grow conservation as a leading discipline and a viable profession”[4][5]. But as noted above, addressing the concerns that decision-makers have of our practice is also critical for securing unreserved political support.  

The three general criticisms levelled against conservation that I come across in discussions with collection managers, museum directors and heritage preservation academics are:

  1. conservation is expensive
  2. conservation is conservative
  3. conservation preferences the material over other intangible cultural values and excludes others from the preservation process

Regardless of how accurate we believe these assessments to be, if we are to gain the trust and support of collection managers, museum directors and heritage preservation academics as well as policy-makers, employers and philanthropic bodies we must be able to address these concerns. 

Conservation is expensive. The 2016 Australian Government National Research Infrastructure Capability Issues Paper, noted that Much conservation practice remains unnecessarily involved, labour intensive and unsustainable. [6] When a call for responses to this issues paper was sent to AICCM members, we received only two responses and only one directly to the quoted claim. This lack of response can be attributed to many things including lack of time or reliance on others to advocate on one’s behalf but I sincerely hope that the lack of response is not a reflection of agreement and acceptance, or worse still for the future of our profession, complacency. If we are sincerely concerned with the viability of conservation, we must be able to answer such statements with a clear understanding of our value.

Expensive is defined as commanding a high price and especially one that is not based on intrinsic worth or is beyond a prospective (buyer’s) needs[7]. ‘Prospective needs’ is a key point here, especially where the outputs of materials preservation may not be immediately apparent. We must collect data that not only demonstrates worth (i.e. economic, social, political and technical value) within the present but understand the implications of conservation practice as it affects the prospective needs of society over time. We must also re-evaluate practice in light of sustainability. This includes not only the sustainability of current methods and need to think ‘green’ but, as with the shift to preventive conservation, consider strategic collections management practices to identify and prioritise treatment needs.

The data required and thus potential research areas from both within conservation and outside the profession, include:

  • defining the economic and social impact of conservation activities and prospective social needs as they relate to conservation (e.g. developing social cohesion and identity; technical skill and knowledge of materiality; pathway for STEM and creative education)[8]
  • sustainability of current conservation practices in the short (years), medium (decades) and long (centuries and millennia) term. If we are serious about being ‘for future generations’, we must consider the impact present approaches have on potential futures [9], [10]
  • alternative funding or employment/engagement models given that the federal and state governments currently employ approx. half of Australia’s conservators directly and for the remaining half of conservators that are in private practice, local and state governments remain a key client. Case studies that honestly explain the advantages and disadvantages of community or citizen-conservation approaches to materials preservation maintenance. In what contexts are the risks considered too great and where might they be acceptable in light of other constraints.

Conservation is conservative. As collecting institutions have transitioned from object-centred to people-centred places, the authority of conservation knowledge and its conservative risk preference has been called into question. As such we must be alert to the use of conservation science being wrongly used as a proxy for a debate over values, including by conservators themselves. For example, where the conservation science has provided a range of deterioration rates for a given material under a certain set of conditions, it is not helpful for conservators to skew the data towards the more conservative end without acknowledging this bias as a risk preference or alternatively, presenting experience or anecdote as fact. This is not to say that such knowledge is not valuable but to misrepresent the facts to suit personal values will only engender mistrust in conservation science.

Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the New Zealand Prime Minister noted: We do not live in a technocratic society, we live in a democracy and values will always and should be the final arbiter of decisions that are made.[11] When advocating for conservation, we must be clear about whether we are presenting scientific consensus or trying to build social consensus for preservation purposes. Both are critical.

The data required and potential research areas include:

  • Evaluating the impact of different cultural materials preservation techniques at both the macro (whole collection or general material type) and micro (object) level due to changing museums practices (e.g. ‘best practice’ standards, changing display materials and methods, preservation costs in light of collections growth)
  • Methods to accommodate revised risk approaches and evaluate longer term impacts[12]
  • Reviewing our ethical framework that acknowledges alternative preservation strategies including replication, reproduction, restoration as part of conservation practice and articulate the opportunities and risks such strategies afford[13]

Conservation preferences the material over other intangible cultural values and excludes others from the preservation process. This was possibly the case during the last few decades of the 20th century, as conservators sought to define their expertise and position themselves as professionals within a growing industry. However, since the development of Significance: A Guide to assessing the significance of collections and its 2012 update Significance 2.0 attitudes have changed and tertiary conservation training in Australia now actively engages with complex cross-cultural questions. Indeed, the awareness of emerging conservators and many museum-based conservators was readily apparent in the papers presented at the 2017 AICCM National conference. Where source-community (Indigenous context) or artist interviews (contemporary art context) were once at the periphery of practice, for many conservators they are now as integral to informing the scope of and approach to treatment methodology as condition reporting. However, there is still some contention around the extent that community-based conservation should be developed[14]

Next steps…

The points above highlight the complex environment in which conservation enacts its advocacy efforts. To ensure greater success in arguing for conservation resources, we must be better equipped to address the concerns listed but foremost we must be transparent about the ideologies that underpin our future vision of Australia’s cultural heritage. The following recommendations are made for the AICCM to build its strategic advocacy capacity:

  1. Develop a Conservator’s Manifesto that defines our aims and belief in the value of cultural materials conservation, that acknowledges cross-cultural approaches but reiterates the unique value of materiality and the scientific method.
  2. Collect data that articulates the social and economic value of conservation. This may be a messy process, as concepts such as value are contested, but at this stage the aim should be to collate this data for collective discussion. The AICCM Wiki would be a good place to both collate this data for member use but also to test the acceptance of a shared understanding of value and professional vision.
  3. Develop and implement a 2-5 year integrated advocacy strategy that outlines partnerships and allies and addresses the prospective needs of those we wish to advocate to. Given the time required to both develop and implement the plan, it is recommended the AICCM that (in line with 1.4. of its 2016-2020 Strategic Plan), establish an Executive Officer position to undertake this work. The AICCM Advocacy Wiki would provide the incumbent with existing resources and a clear narrative to develop the advocacy strategy.
  4. Maintain and on-going program of data collection and horizon scanning[15] and adjust the advocacy strategy as necessary.

Advocacy is not an easy or simple activity. It requires a large and sustained investment of time and energy[16]. If the AICCM membership commits itself to a program of strategic advocacy it must do so with the ongoing support and confident engagement of its members.

The following Manifesto is an attempt to clearly articulate the aims of the conservator. It sits alongside our core documents, the AICCM Constitution and Code of Ethics and Code of Practice. Whilst these two documents outline how we act, The Conservator’s Manifesto is intended to remind us from where it is we act. It is because of this that the Manifesto starts with the beliefs that could be made by any and all working within the field of heritage preservation and reminds us of our similarities as an industry. It addresses ideas of communication, temporality and context as a means of highlighting some of the core philosophical challenges of our time.[17] It ends with those beliefs that are particular to the practice of the conservator. The Conservator’s Manifesto listed below is a draft. I invite others to make changes and, in the spirit of the National Conference theme, collaboratively develop a Conservator’s Manifesto of our time.


  • We believe that access to and care of one’s cultural heritage is of fundamental value and a human right[18].
  • We value the communicative and collaborative function that heritage preservation plays in supporting a healthy society through inspiration, connectedness, identity formation.
  • We believe that preservation solutions are contextually dependent and are influenced by the material, its message, its cultural context and available (and anticipated) resources.
  • We value the technical skills involved with the production, analysis, and transmission of this material heritage and the knowledge it holds. We apply techne (making or doing knowledge) and the scientific method as a tools for obtaining knowledge.
  • We value the material not because we believe it is the preferred way of knowing but rather that it embodies its own unique way of knowing. We appreciate the intangible beliefs, thoughts and associations of material culture and seek discourse with those to whom the material is most meaningful and through technical examination seek to extend our  understanding of methods of production and materiality. Through its preservation we aim to extend the temporal existence in which the material can perform the communicative role.

[1] The paper has been submitted for publication in the AICCM Bulletin c. June 2018

[2] Hutchings, J. and Cassar, M. (2006) ‘A Soft Systems Framework for the Conservation for the Conservation management of Material Cultural Heritage’ in Systems Practice Action Research. Vol 19 pp. 201-216

[3] Those theories include Post-Normal Science and Post-Normal Conservation to explain the growing emphasis on stakeholder engagement when undertaking and presenting scientific results and Post-Normal Times to explain the complexity observed in society today. It ended with Causal Layered Analysis to map the systems and worldviews that underpin present conservation practices and advocacy aims. Four theories that may possibly be acceptable in a paper but not so agreeable to one’s mental state as the first paper of the Friday morning that followed the Thursday evening Awards Cocktail party.

[4] Sloggett, R. (2016) ‘Relinquishing ambulance chasing: Designing a future for a conservation profession fully engaged with Australia’s cultural heritage’ in AICCM Bulletin Vol. 37 No. 2 p.126.

[5] The Demos publication ‘It’s a Material World: Caring for the public realm’ (2008) offers a clearer picture of the public engagement landscape

[6] Australian Government (2016) National Research Infrastructure Capability Issues Paper July 2016[Accessed 7/11/2017]

[7] From Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary

[8] This would draw from research being done in similar studies around the value of culture, heritage and the arts, most notably in Australia by David Throsby and Deakin University. And whilst these arguments about whether such things can be measured and if so, the best way to approach this will inevitably result, we need to build a language around values. The Demos publication ‘It’s a Material World’ offers a good starting point for the profession. Available on-line

[9] See for example Taylor, J. (2013) ‘Intergenerational justice: a useful perspective for heritage conservation’ in, CeROArt] Available on-line

[10] There is a growing body of research and published papers addressing the sustainability of conservation practice (e.g. environmental guidelines, use and disposal of chemicals as part of treatment, storage and packing materials etc.) but there is also a need for conservators to assist decision makers evaluate the true costs of acquiring and preserving collection materials across the expected lifetime of the artwork or object

[11] Gluckman, P. (2013) ‘Interpreting science – implications for public understanding, advocacy and policy formation.’ Office of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee [Accessed 7/5/2017]

[12] This might perhaps draw upon risk assessment methodologies to develop collection scenarios and evaluate financial, social and environmental implications.

[13] Most recently Jonathan Ashley-Smith has argued for the development of a Bespoke Code of Ethics which would accommodate alternative preservation strategies currently being (or should be more effectively be) employed in such specialties as time-based media, large technology objects, musical instruments, Indigenous objects and/or art preservation.

[14] See Scott, M Scott, M. (2015) ‘Normal and Extraordinary Conservation Knowledge: Towards a Post-normal Theory of Cultural Materials Conservation’ in AICCM Bulletin Vol. 36, No. 1 pp. 3-12.

[15] A futures methodology that would seek to identify emerging issues and trends or identify activities that could impact the advocacy program for example the emergence of new cultural funding or policy reference bodies etc. 

[16] As noted by Alice Cannon in the March 2017 e-news article that precedes the ‘On Advocacy’ discussion and available for viewing at

[17] These concerns were broadly identified in the seminal publication 1994 ‘Durability and Change: The Science, Responsibility and Cost of Sustaining Cultural Heritage’ based on the 1992 Dahlem Workshop of the same name and remain area of on-going discussion.

[18] Article 27 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights