AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Exhibiting Ourselves: Presenting Conservation

This interactive session was chaired by Suzanne Davis (Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan) and Emily Williams (Colonial Williamsburg), and focused on issues related to exhibiting conservation goals and activities to a public audience. Attendees of the session had the chance to hear presentations that examined a number of conservation outreach models and methods, and were then invited to brainstorm solutions to some of the issues raised during the talks. Before introducing the speakers, Suzanne Davis expressed why she thinks exhibiting conservation is important and effective: doing so raises awareness and support, by the fact that conservation as a field fascinates people of many interests, making it an ideal subject for exhibition.

A diverse array of conservation outreach cases were presented at a lively pace of 15 minutes per talk. Tom Learner’s presentation on the exhibition of De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column at the J. Paul Getty museum showed how conservators were able to balance very technical information on the process of making the object with thought-provoking questions about how to preserve the artist’s original intent. This was done by including polyester maquettes in the exhibit space, along with supporting media that ran images and video of Valentine in action. Cynthia Albertson discussed the challenges and successes of exhibiting the conservation behind MoMA’s project to reunify Diego Rivera’s portable murals. Items featured in the gallery – including X-ray films showing the walls’ internal structures as well as examples of the artist’s materials – were accompanied by online features and a fresco-making course at NYU.

Following these initial talks the audience divided up into discussion groups and were invited to consider some questions, which had been printed out and left on each group’s table. My table decided to tackle the following questions (paraphrased):

Q. A lot of energy goes into creating conservation exhibits but is the conservation community aware that these exhibits are happening or do we stumble on them when visiting other museums?

A. The table felt that we do generally try to follow what our colleagues are doing, but that there is no centralized platform to find this information. News about exhibitions tends to be trickled onto web-media platforms like Facebook via word of mouth (or click).

Q. Should we as a community be more involved in helping to promote them?

A. Yes.

Q. Through what paths?

A. Perhaps through institutional or affiliated blogs.. this could be done by working closely with the institution’s social media person.

Q. Do we need to reach out to our own community?                                                                                            

A. Yes, perhaps through posts on the AIC Blog, which can be linked to other social media platforms. At this point in the discussion the idea of an online conservation ‘bulletin board’ was raised – a location to post these types of exhibitions. A platform that allows for visually-impacting, post-it-like messages of events would be useful – like Pinterest.

Q. How should we ‘outreach’ about outreach in AIC?                                                                                                            

A. One member of the group pointed out that this is already happening – AIC’s in-development PR Toolkit, which is hosted on the WIKI, offers a list of traditional and social media tools to help conservators reach out to their intended audience.

Talks resumed with Irene Peters’ discussion of the challenges of exhibiting day-to-day activities in a visible conservation laboratory at the Musical Instrument Museum. Digital monitors explaining the purpose of fume trunks, docents trained to talk about conservation, and open tool cabinets displayed close to the visitors’ window were among the techniques used to transform an active lab into an ongoing conservation exhibit. Sanchita Balachandran talked about how outreach is an integral part of the conservator’s role in a university museum. Her work at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum has encompassed everything from object treatment and exhibition to providing access to collections through courses and online didactics. The session’s final speaker, Christopher McAfee of the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, discussed the various approaches the department has used to educate staff and patrons on the proper handling and care of archival collections. His training video on the subject – filmed in the style of an 1960’s airline safety video, flashing tooth * smile included – elicited laughter throughout the room.

The session ended with a final panel discussion of the questions our breakout groups had tackled after the first two talks. A rep from each table joined the panel at the front of the room, and we worked through the following questions (paraphrased here):

Q. Should conservators share information on how they treat artworks?                                                                    

A. Attendees seemed to favor sharing preventive information over explanations of treatment, though Christopher McAfee pointed out that explaining the process of a particular treatment, along with the caveat that trying to repair something yourself will likely make it worse, has led patrons to approach trained conservators for help instead.

Q. Do we know what our audience knows about conservation?                                                                 

A. We don’t, although surveys could help us to better understand the extent of visitors’ knowledge (as has been done at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan).

Q. Is it valuable to weave conservation information into gallery exhibits on a regular basis?                          

A. This could be challenging for space reasons, but there is plenty of room online for this information to be regularly featured.

Q. Does conservation outreach take too much time?          

A. Perhaps, but if we work as teams with the institution’s media departments time could be reasonably split and balanced. Ironically, our table ran out of time before we could tackle this particular question.

The balance of presentations with group and panel discussion made this outreach session quite valuable. I feel as if I’ve walked away with some answers to the questions many of us have about whether conservation exhibition is worth the added time and energy. If we work to promote our presence both in the gallery and online, I think these efforts will be worthwhile.