After 50 years, we have paused to reflect on the people and circumstances that brought the AICCM into existence. Having first arrived in Australia in 1989, I’d known little about its genesis. Then, in 2019, I found a bundle of letters in my office at the Australian Museum from 1972, which provided a snapshot of the fledgling conservation profession in Australia. They were replies from almost all major cultural institutions across Australia to Sue Walston, the first conservator at the Museum. Sue was attempting to compare the pay scales of conservation employees across the states. The responses revealed that specialist conservation staff were a rare breed in that era. There were perhaps a dozen conservators with any type of training, and most institutions had none.
The Werner Report had been presented to government two years earlier, highlighting the lack of conservation and neglect of collections across Australasia, but no action resulted. Meanwhile, in Canberra, there were sufficient conservation employees to organise themselves into the ACT Committee for the Conservation of Cultural Materials. They surveyed the institutions throughout the nation and found there was support for the foundation of a national conservation body.
Opening the 2023 conference, our ‘Reflections’ session included contributions from Ian Cook and Allan Byrne, the first secretary and treasurer of the Institute. They both attended the first national conference held in Perth in August 1973, which was initiated and organised by Professor Colin Pearson and his staff at the Western Australian Museum. There was only a handful of conservators present, with the bulk of the delegates being museum professionals and academics. The major theme of the meeting was reporting on the state of the collections and collection care resources across the institutions. There was also a session on the preservation of rock art sites. Correspondence indicates that great efforts were made to enable First Nations elders to attend. I was impressed that, 50 years ago, it was already appreciated that Indigenous communities must be part of planning preservation strategies for their culture.
Ian Cook outlined the achievements of that first conference, which culminated in the foundation of ICCM at the inaugural AGM. Twelve resolutions were stated in the minutes. The urgent need to create a local tertiary training course was a key goal. Another was to advocate effectively for conservation and raise awareness at the political level. (This has been a recurring theme at AICCM meetings since then.) The election of the arts-friendly Whitlam government in 1972 had helped to create a positive political climate for action on conservation. Allan Byrne pointed out that politicians were more accessible in those days. In fact, Whitlam and his ministers would walk down to the ANU staff bar in the evenings, allowing academics to get in their ear over a beer. These opportunities were not wasted, and no doubt this helped to fuel the great expansion in conservation employment during the 1970s.
Our Golden Jubilee was a great opportunity to consider where AICCM came from and where it’s going. Sue Walston, sharing her memories by email, wrote that, in the early years, we were fortunate to have a group of ‘free and forward-looking people’ working in a supportive political environment to improve the care of neglected collections. Now, in the 2020s, climate-driven threats to our cultural assets have captured the attention of all levels of government. As in 1973, could the same confluence of crises, politics and the right people lead to great initiatives in conservation? Looking back on the diverse presentations at this year’s conference, I’m confident our profession will continue to be a vital force in meeting the challenges ahead.