Newsletter Issue Number:
AICCM National Newsletter No 139 September 2017
MaryJo Lelyveld AICCM National President

The AICCM has long been an advocate for access to preservation services and science through collaborative means. From its first inception as ICCM at the 1976 ‘Conservation in Australia’ conference, scientists and curators in attendance were concerned with:

  • The development of conservation staffing, training and lab facilities
  • Greater understanding of the nature of deterioration within different collections
  • Suggestions for methods to mitigate deterioration through improving collection environments [1]

These concerns came a year after the Piggott Report (1975) that had identified the need to establish a Cultural Materials Conservation Institute “to study—and disseminate—ways of preventing deterioration of fragile and perishable museum objects, especially under Australian climatic and other conditions.”

Since the mid-1970’S many national and state collecting institutions have secured highly adequate exhibition and collection storage facilities. The majority have also secured in-house conservation facilities with ready access to qualified conservation staff. Works are now housed in ‘museum standard’ storage and exhibited in environmentally controlled conditions, that mitigate the worst temperature and RH fluctuations and damage from dust, pollutants, insects and light. Federal and state auditor bodies such as the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), Audit Office of NSW, Victorian Auditor General Office (VAGO) routinely review their reporting bodies to ensure collections are managed in line with statutory obligations and international standards.

This is not to say that current conditions in our larger institutions are optimal by conservation criteria. There is an on-going need to investigate new collection material types and approaches to the use and display of collections to reflect change in museological practice. Opportunities to refine knowledge and practice through research remain at the core of conservation as applied science. In addition, the highly publicised push for dividend efficiencies, increased staffing costs, increased competition for output (i.e more exhibitions and/or on-line access programs), increasing number of collection items and new materials used in their production has shifted practice away from on-going materials research, technical art history and interventive treatment. But these conditions are removed from those noted by editor of the 1976 conference, Sue Walston who lamented that the condition of Australia’s collection was a “story of massive collections jammed into disreputable storage structures, of buildings, monuments and archaeological sites totally neglected, and of conservation laboratories that could be counted on the fingers of one hand.”

However, it is still the case that in regional and remote areas, a significant proportion of Australia’s material culture, are housed in conditions similar to those found following the 1973 First National Conservation Seminar. Items in some local history, community and familial collections are stored where space can be found, with few basic preventive conservation strategies in place. A number of our members have been highly vocal in the need for greater access to conservation knowledge and services by these groups, particularly those collections in regional and remote areas. These concerns are reinforced by several reports that highlight the increased disparity in ready access to preservation services in these areas. Without local conservators on staff, many regional collections must seek support from conservation professionals located in capital cities, largely located along the coast.

It is for this reason that the AICCM has partnered with the University of Melbourne, Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, to develop a regional-based conservation program for recent graduates. The premise of The National Project program is to test models to ensure that conservation graduates from regional and rural areas return home after study and find meaningful ways of applying materials preservation and conservation knowledge to address community needs.  It is about supporting AICCM members to build communities of practice in areas in which conservation access is currently problematic, in which conservation expertise is commonly imported rather than locally championed. It is a community focused and sustainable model of ensuring equitable access to preservation knowledge and skills.

On this front, the 2008 UK publication ‘It’s a Material World: Caring for the public realm’ offered a constructive and accessible narrative for the conservation profession. Its recommendations included broadening the advocacy discussion from one focused on technical and research excellence to incorporating the social benefits of caring for our material world. It is this community driven and owned approach that The National Project seeks to develop. We look forward to updating you on the progress of this project over the coming months.

[1] Walston, S (ed) (1976) Conservation in Australia. Proceedings of the ICCM National Conference. Canberra, May 1976. Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material: Sydney