The move towards exclusively online content dissemination has, as recently as this landmark year, become the norm. Indeed, this year has marked the first fully online congress in the history of the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) and is but one of many symposia that has adapted itself to a virtual platform.
This year’s 28th Biennial congress, Current Practices and Challenges in Built Heritage Conservation, welcomed over 1,800 delegates from 89 countries, a celebratory turnout.
An online platform presented the opportunity for increased reach and accessibility of the conference and, as IIC President Julian Bickersteth noted, registration numbers were three to four times higher than usual. The congress was made available to access for IIC members while fees for non-members were kept reasonable. Considering absence of travel and a flexible timeframe, participation was arguably more approachable for many professionals across the globe, particularly students and early career professionals.
Over the past two weeks, we have had the pleasure of watching the congress in a ‘content on demand’ service generally reserved for our guilty Netflix (or the plethora of other equally addictive television subscription) nights-in, which has been a truly wonderful gift given our usual regional disadvantage here in Australia. In consideration of this the AICCM also arranged a more time-friendly opportunity for participants in the Asia-Pacific to engage in live format discussions through a dedicated Q&A session.
The format of the congress was a mix of live and recorded sessions. There were some great technical aspects afforded by the virtual format. The closed captioning made it easier to follow the presentations and the running transcript of all presentations was also very useful to consult for any note takers among the viewership. One of the only difficulties was stable internet connectivity, which made watching some presentations a little difficult at times. To the organisation committee’s credit, we were kept up to date with access concerns and received regular email updates with links for the program throughout the congress, advising better internet browsers for video playbacks.
The addition of chat-room channels facilitated engagement and conversation in real time during the conference. The live introduction and closing statements instilled a sense of togetherness, as well as the regional hubs. Sessions featured around five pre-recorded presentations followed by a live Q&A with the presenters, many of whom also answered live questions in the chat function during their respective pre-recorded videos. Sessions were chaired by renowned international professionals who were well prepared. Every member of the Q&A panels was asked at least one question and the flow between the conversation was smooth and engaging.
It was particularly great to see the inclusion of early career digital engagement volunteers who were properly introduced and were responsible for the timekeeping and delivery of the questions to the panelists, again increasing the opportunity for intergenerational professional engagement.
Poster presentations were also pre-recorded, with the posters themselves available for download. During poster sessions participants were able to join live, more intimate Zoom chats with the authors to discuss the content and ask any questions. This was a great way for students to engage with established professionals in a more dedicated and conversational format that assisted in alleviating any intimidation or nervousness that sometimes comes from in-person introductions. Participants could also vote for their favourite poster alongside an IIC judging panel, with the two winners receiving funding towards professional development or the cost of studies, thanks to sponsorship by XpectralTEK. Other sponsors for the event included Historic Environment Scotland, CXD International, the Getty Foundation and Tru Vue – write those names down for your next SIG conference!
Access to all conference preprints before commencement of the conference was also very welcome as it provided the opportunity to tailor our congress experience to suit our research interests.
The congress was organised into 11 sessions spanning architectural heritage projects in Scotland, material and scientific specialisms of wall painting, stucco, scagliola, mortar, ceramic, stone, mosaic and contemporary sculptural fabrics, preventive conservation with an emphasis on environmental climate control in complex building interiors such as churches and historic houses, and issues of assessing bias in conservation decision making, risk management models, community conservation engagement and decolonisation of sacred indigenous heritage sites.
Papers showcased outcomes for successful community-led conservation initiatives as well as presenting case studies exploring the scientific and technological applications of infrared tomography for thermal modelling, moisture analysis, 3D digital modelling through micro CT scanning, and the use of proprietary gel cleaning systems for surface cleaning of wall and decorative relief paintings.
Whilst it is not possible to encompass all content in this congress, we both reflected on some of its highlights.
2.1 Tours: some highlights
Despite a lack of physical presence in the city, the congress was still structured to celebrate the heritage conservation work occurring in Scotland through dedicated sessions on Scottish Projects on Day 1 and virtual tours to various historic sites and conservation spaces. The congress presenters can be congratulated for their success at evoking the beauty of Scotland through these tours, as much as we would have loved to be there in person. Some were more successful than others in managing to impart that feeling of spatial exploration. For instance, the virtual mode of delivery of Historical Environment Scotland’s tour Conserving an Icon: Edinburgh Castle was especially successful with a few aerial sweeping shots of the castle and cityscape only made possible through a film platform (or else a helicopter!).
As much as it cannot replace the physical experience, there are many advantages to online tours, such as there being no need to restrict numbers for ‘tours’ and special interest groups and activities where previously delegates would have to choose between tours. Other considerations include being able to view and listen to the presentation without crowd jostling or noise interference.
Further tour highlights included Building a Future from our Past: Conservation and Education at the Engine Shed, which was a great example of heritage outreach, seeking to ‘… raise the profile of traditional buildings and traditional skills’ through the model of community and early learning education and engagement with local heritage trade engineering and craftsmanship. Such activities as creating music from found objects and performing in the spaces and celebrating traditional craft skills through weekend workshops for kids highlighted by an expert team working across disciplines of stone, mortar and plaster, metals, paints and glass.
It was very exciting and stimulating to hear of the ambitious Ray project to digitally scan and document 336 properties including all objects that they house using the most innovative technologies of terrestrial laser scanning, UAV photogrammetry and structured light scanning for sites such as Edinburgh Castle and Stirling Castle. It was also heartening to hear that the Engine Shed engages with universities to facilitate applied research initiatives in addition to supporting Craft Fellows to consolidate rare trade skills.
2.3 Papers: some highlights
It would be remiss not to celebrate our Australian colleagues who were excellent in representing our field on the international stage. IIC President Julian Bikersteth (CEO International Conservation Services) did a fantastic job at leading the congress, and we are sure that what we saw on screen is but a fraction of the work that was dedicated to ensuring this congress was such a great success. It can be agreed that there are not many models from which to build an entirely online conference such as this, and the IIC was successful at both achieving a well received, fluid, and comprehensively navigable model as well as working towards creating a template that can potentially be implemented internationally.
We also heard from Amanda Pagliarino, Coordinator of the AICCM Environmental Guidelines Project, who spoke clearly and with great leadership to the Australian perspective on the impact of climate change on heritage conservation.
Another presentation to highlight was that of Melissa Marshall (Research Fellow, Nulungu Research Institute), Kadeem May (Assistant Cultural Heritage Officer, Kakadu National Park), Robin Dann (Wunggurr Ranger) and Lloyd Nulgit (Project Officer, Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation) who spoke about a decolonised framework when approaching Australian Indigenous rock art conservation and management, one that puts culture at the centre of a model that moves from the inner circle out. Sarah-Jane Rennie (Head of Collections Care, Sydney Living Museums) presented a thoughtful paper on the interpretation and evolving management approach of the 12.5-hectare north-western Sydney Rouse Hill Estate, and how tangible conservation efforts work not only to maintain the physical site, but to maintain its intangible cultural heritage – the spirit of the place. It was a joy to hear from our Australian colleagues and we congratulate them for representing us through considered papers that captured the Australian context and our holistic perspective on the broader context of conservation.
A good number of the conference papers discussed the outcomes and treatment decisions of testing of materials in conservation practice of built heritage. Some of the presentations that had an impact through both spoken and written communication included Poul Kelnz Larsen’s paper ‘Climactic Protection of Historic Vaults with Lime-Perlite Mortar’ in which the challenges of finding suitable thermal insulating material for vaulted ceilings was explored in an experimental case study of a medieval church in Annisse, Denmark. It was a surreal experience viewing a behind-the-scenes tour of the architectural grandeur of the vaults as seen in relief from the perspective of up above (in the roof) while they explained the issues of insulation, which could mould itself to the quadripartite double-curved geometry of the vault structure. The traditional industry options of mineral wool and porous silicate sheets were not suitable for such structures. In addition, it was necessary to find appropriately load-bearing materials to support ongoing or future roof maintenance work. The results of the research revealed an in-situ casting approach using slaked lime and perlite (amorphous volcanic silicate) mortar reinforced with animal hair fibres for strength.
Another paper of interest from a treatment perspective was the ambitious project to aesthetically reintegrate losses sustained to decorative wall paintings in the Cathedral of Saint Lawrence, Lugano, Switzerland. This project was particularly interesting given the complexities arising from a consideration of different conservation histories and stakeholders ultimately resulting in the decision to preserve the integrity of skilled prior restoration interventions carried out by Swiss-Italian architect Augusto Guidinin (c. 1853–1928) and painter Ernesto Rusca (c. 1864–1947) both considered to be much later additions to the 900-year-old church. Discussions on approaches to articulating these different fabric epochs was weighed up against decisions to retain the unity of all paintings and ‘respect continuity’ in the church regardless of period correctness. In addition, conservators sought to balance the issues associated with the paintings with the practicalities of the building as a place of worship.
In the stellar paper ‘Beginning with Benefits: Reducing Bias in Conservation Decision-making’, Jane Henderson, Robert Waller and David Hopes spoke about mapping bias in conservation decision-making when approaching change and risks. Jane Henderson also gave a poignant wrap up of the congress and offered a reflection on the Forbes Prize lecture, stating that the IIC is committed to change, looking closer at diversity and advancing equal opportunity for all to experience the joy of connecting with heritage.
3 Concluding thoughts
In conclusion, we reflect on some key ideas that may be of use in future online AICCM events including:
- having live welcoming and closing addresses
- having pre-recorded videos—both papers and posters—complemented by a live chat and followed by a live Q&A
- having smaller break-out rooms and Zoom calls, which are excellent but sometimes require a designated ‘prompter’ to keep things going
- providing access to the recordings afterwards, although including live events encourages real-time attendance
- inviting chairs who are well prepared to create a smooth session with industry engagement
- including students and early career professionals in delivery – not just support
- considering creating platforms for other time-zones to increase international reach
- having fee-free ‘attendance’ for members only.
For those who have not yet had a chance to view the congress, it is available for members to access all content until 6 December. We are both delighted to hear that the next IIC congress will be hosted by our wonderful neighbours—the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Material—in Wellington, NZ, in 2022! The themes will surround bicultural working practices, shifting values in conservation and community-based conservation, and it is set to be a blended format of in-person and online content. Bring on IIC 2022!
 Melissa Marshall, Kadeem May, Robin Dann & Lloyd Nulgit (2020) ‘Indigenous Stewardship of Decolonised Rock Art Conservation Processes in Australia’, Studies in Conservation, 65, sup. 1, 205–12.
 Sarah-Jane Rennie (2020) ‘Small Changes to Avoid Major Loss: Collaborative Conservation Practices at Rouse Hill House and Farm’, Studies in Conservation, 65, sup. 1, 262–67.
 Poul Klenz Larsen (2020) ‘Climatic Protection of Historical Vaults with Lime-Perlite Mortar’, Studies in Conservation, 65, sup. 1, 174–79.
 Jacopo Gilardi & Elisabeth Manship (2020) ‘Change and Continuity: Material and Ethical Issues in the Restoration of Wall Paintings in the Cathedral of Saint Lawrence, Switzerland’, Studies in Conservation, 65, sup. 1, 98–104
 Jane Henderson, Robert Waller and David Hopes (2020) ‘Begin with Benefits: Reducing Bias in Conservation Decision-Making’, Studies in Conservation, 65, sup. 1, 142–47.