AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting: Conservation Conversations: Audience, Fundraising, Institutional Support, and Career Paths

At the annual meeting this year, I appreciated that many of the sessions incorporated and allowed for conversations and discussion between the presenters and audience, and this session was no exception. The first half featured 3 more traditional-style presentations followed by a dynamic panel interview with 3 conservators whose career paths have diverged from the bench.

Sari Uricheck opened the session with a strong presentation  on “Promoting Conservation.” She spoke about marketing and PR and how the field of conservation needs to work on its message and image, and offered some concrete ideas for how we can start doing this. She pointed out the fact that conservation has weak “brand recognition” and made important points about the fact that terminology matters. We use so many different words to describe our work-conservation, preservation, collections care-but we need to be consistent in our language. Public Relations is about communicating and image control is part of this. Sari urged us to use the term “conservation” to describe our work.

In her talk, Sari outlined some essential elements of a successful conservation PR campaign. She discussed the need for an association audit-what do audiences connect with conservation?  Among the public, people often think of paintings conservation. In museums, many of our colleagues may associate conservation and conservators with being difficult or saying “no”, and among allied professionals, conservation may be associated with a large expense. Using PR, we can plant associations that we want people to make. Our messages should be explaining what conservation makes possible-we should be communicating “YES” not “NO”. Sari also pointed out that targeting allied professionals is just as important as targeting the public and that we need to highlight the fact that conservation is central to all museums’ missions.

Sari also discussed the idea of borrowing from a social organization model by Dr. Marshall Ganz-“Self, Us, Now.”  The idea is that we as a profession can draw unity, inspiration and power from our personal narratives to form a collective identity. And the urgency of “now” is often difficult to convey-why conservation now? There are ways to convince people that conservation is important now, such as organizing events around Preservation Week and May Day. Sari pointed out that the US is about a decade behind Europe when it comes to promoting conservation. She urged us to take action now to bring about a greater awareness of our field and what we do. I liked Sari’s talk and I think that her message is spot-on. I’ve been working on AIC’s PR Toolkit, so I particularly appreciated her ideas and I hope to start working on incorporating them into this resource soon.

Carmen Li spoke next, about a project at the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA), where she helped develop a project using social media for fundraising, in conjunction with a collections move project from 2008-2011.

Money had been raised to build a new collections center, but the museum needed funding for supplies and equipment. So the “Save-a-pot” campaign was started to solicit small donations and to highlight research taking place behind the scenes. They started with a Facebook giving campaign by making a video featuring the prehistoric ceramic collection, showing the collection in its old storage conditions and then in the new storage location, and showing the progress of the move. The video was made using still shots, assembled with Final Cut Pro, edited using Quicktime, and uploaded to Youtube.

They made this into a “microgiving” campaign and let people know what their money would help fund-$5 for 50 hot glue sticks, $100 for a roll of Tyvek, etc. The key points of their campaign was that it told a story, it allowed for multiple donations of small amounts of money for specific causes, it showed how the donations would be directly input into the museum and the project, and it was based on the belief that philanthropists  need not be millionaires.

Unfortunately, after all of that work, the director left and the campaign wasn’t launched. So instead they posted the video on the MNA homepage and they still managed to raise funds. The lesson Carmen left us with is that while social media is easy to use, it isn’t necessarily simple to use it effectively and successfully. She also stressed the fact that museums need to be open to their staff taking on different roles.

In the third talk of the session, Catriona Hughes and Sarah Kay spoke about how the National Trust moved conservation projects into the public spotlight, which helped increase revenues and visitorship. Early on in properties within in the National Trust, visitors were shown finished rooms and conservation was done off-site or in the off-season. When work had to be done on-site, there was no access or interpretation for the public. In 2001, there was pressure for the Trust to increase revenue and open properties for longer seasons, which meant that conservation could no longer take place in the off-season, and lead to an effort to bring greater awareness to conservation and to make these projects more interactive and participatory.

Conservation projects started to be carried out with transparency, and they found that public engagement is a powerful way of building support and is a tool for unlocking funding. An example is the Attingham Re-discovered project, which began in 2006 in an effort to make interior improvements to the Attingham mansion. By drawing visitors into conservation debates and decision-making, they saw an increase in visitors by over 100%. Marketing and social media played a big role in this as well-they launched Attingham Park TV on Youtube.

By putting conservation front and center, the National Trust found that they could generate support, encourage funding, increase visitor numbers and raise the profile of conservation and the value of traditional skills.

These inspiring presentations were followed by a talk show-style interview with Scott Carrlee, Nicola Longford and Susan Mathisen, led by Julie Heath. All three conservators’ careers have diverged from the bench into other areas, including museum and institutional development, administration and community outreach. I found this part of the session so interesting and inspiring-all three said that their education, training and experience in conservation gave them confidence and curiosity needed to contribute and to be successful in these other roles. In their new positions, they can also act as important advocates for conservation. In this economic climate, with seemingly few jobs and opportunities, hearing from Scott, Susan and Nicola was an excellent reminder that there are many ways to be effective in caring for collections and that there are more ways to be a conservator.