AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting (2012): The Great Debate – Part I

Kudos go to Richard McCoy, Conservator of Objects & Variable Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for instigating and moderating the first Great Debate at the AIC 2012 Annual Meeting.  This session consisted of two Oxford-Style Debate sessions of 30 minutes each on a chosen topic.  Each debate session consisted of initial presentations from the teams lasting for five minutes.  Members of the audience were then allowed to ask questions and each debate team was given time to respond. Then each team gave closing arguments for an additional five minutes.  Richard was very clear that debaters were chosen for their willingness to participate and were not necessarily representing their personal views on the topics.  And, clearly the topics were chosen and worded to be provocative! Before the debate the audience was polled by a show of hands on who agreed or disagreed with the statement.  After the debate the audience was asked whose opinions were swayed so that a winning team could be chosen.

This dry introduction doesn’t represent the fun and excitement that ensued during the actual debate.  I can’t remember any sessions at previous AIC meetings that elicited raucous laughter, huge applause, and cheers and boos from the crowded room.  Richard projected a huge stopwatch on the screen to time the statements and I can only imagine how nervous it made the debaters because it got my pulse racing just watching it!  When Paul Messier’s iPad froze during his opening statement my heart lept to my mouth and his off the cuff comment became part of the drama.

The participants must be complemented on their willingness to put themselves forward and get into the spirit with a bit of trash talking and theatrics all in good fun.  I think this demonstrated that it is possible to debate topics of real importance within our professional society without rancor or taking ourselves too seriously. This session was clearly a crowd favorite and I hope it will be repeated at future meetings.    Below is the statement for the first debate topic and text or talking points from the two teams.  The second debate will be included in a separate post.  Please feel free to weigh yourself by commenting here on the blog.

TOPIC #1:  Publishing accurate and complete “how-to guides” for conservation and restoration treatments online is the best way for us to care for cultural heritage in the 21st century.

For the affirmative:

  • Paul Messier
  • Karen Pavelka
  • Mary Striegel

Opening Statements

As our colleagues on the other side will no doubt point out, you can’t teach conservation using new digital technologies, like say, the internet.  What they mean, of course, is that you can’t teach conservation treatment.  And if you choose to focus on treatment as the defining attribute of our profession then my team has powerful arguments in store.  But of course the field is more than treatment.  The keywords we should all focus on are:

  • Publish
  • Guides
  • Cultural Heritage
  • Best

Publish: We in conservation, especially those of us privileged with something worth sharing, have a professional obligation to communicate that knowledge.  Publishing online has tremendous advantages in terms of cost, environmental sustainability and the ability to immediately reach people globally.

Guides: What’s a guide? A guide is not a rote set of formulas and solutions.  A guide is just that: It provides information helpful to formulating a solution, for treatment issues and beyond. A guide is patently not prescriptive. Guides promote thinking.  Guides do not shut it down.

Cultural Heritage: As conservators we have an obligation to look beyond our own immediate challenges and confront some of our own biases.  The world is a big place and again, we who have the privilege of educations developed through internships and academic training don’t want to be in a position of saying to the world “you have to do it our way.”  Instead we need to break through educational, ethnic, economic, religious barriers to effectively serve material culture and reach those with the courage to stand up and defend it.

“Best”:  Best does not mean “only.” Of course there will always be a place for “traditional” conservation education.  But if you are serious about your ethical obligation to do the most good for the greatest number of objects then you must get serious about moving content online.

Conservation Online has roughly 10,000 subscribers in 92 countries.  In his remarkable career of graduate school training Dan Kushel has had, give or take, 340 students — from a handful of countries.  It’s great that these fortunate students were able to command such lavish resources.  But is that realistic for needs of cultural heritage globally? We can and should do more.

Announcing EDX a new joint venture to put MIT and Harvard courses online, MIT president Susan Hockfield said “you can choose to view this era as one of threatening change and unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes.”

Like MIT and Harvard, we cannot afford nostalgia for the way we were trained to cloud our vision for the future.

For the negative:

  • Victoria Montana Ryan
  • Scott Carrlee
  • Matthew Skopek

Opening Statement

Publishing accurate and complete.” With best practices constantly evolving how quickly will complete and accurate be incomplete, inaccurate, and obsolete?  Online “how-to-treatment-guides” could become the 8-track tapes of conservation that AIC would need to maintain – maybe of interest historically but no one would use.  Technology moves fast and keeping up with changes demands time. Our esteemed colleagues might well argue that an online format would be the easiest to enable quick updates.

Quick and easy doesn’t necessarily mean accurate and complete and current mechanisms for publishing a complete and accurate online “how-to guide” can sometimes be difficult.  Publishing a peer-reviewed article is very different from throwing something up on a blog. Well researched publications are already currently available in a variety of formats – what does an online “how-to-treatment-guide” really contribute?  Let us consider return on investment. A recent article by Adrian Ellis, published in the winter 2012 edition of Grantmakers in the Arts, notes stresses placed on organizations when there is a mismatch between expectations and capacity. This could easily apply to AIC if we were to be constantly trying to update “how-to-guides”.  With limited resources what would the return on the investment be?

What if accurate and complete “best practices” include methods, materials, equipment, etc. that are beyond the reach of most members – will their businesses be hurt by owners whose expectations may be too great? Will owners insist on pursuing actions that may be neither feasible nor necessary, thus leading to increased costs and ultimately have a net result of actually reducing conservation treatments? Another problem with online “how-to-treatment-guides” is there is no one there to answer questions that arise or to provide insights or warnings if one goes astray.  There is often difficulty in translating what one reads or hears into correct action – and is always subject to misinterpretation.  Given the many variables of conservation treatments such guides may be a useful adjunct in teaching arenas but is no substitution for hands-on teaching.

“Best way for us to care for cultural heritage in 21st century”  Really? A “how-to guide” for the 21st century? Such a guide seems so 19th century, rather irrelevant.  How-to guides might have been fine when the paradigm was scarcity of available information but now we have an abundance (overload) of information.  We (AIC) should not be trying to produce or police “how-to treatment-guides” but rather seek to be learned guides, an authoritative voice in the cacaphony of the internet, empowering today’s user with information that discusses the complexities, nuances, judgment and experience that are necessary at every step of conservation.  Today’s consumers of information want to curate their own content and a “how-to-guide” does not cover the why or why-not, the critical thinking, that is vital to the process. We need to show that preservation is relevant, so while informational and educational publications and videos are important they should be geared more toward the thinking process and not treatment recipes. Defining the target audience and creating guides for care, that are less likely to become quickly outdated, may be a better approach to engaging others, in both thought and participation, in the quest to care for cultural heritage in the 21st century.

The central point is that for AIC/The Conservation Profession to be relevant in a web based world, we need to be seen as the source for timely, relevant and  accurate information, but this does not mean how to guides for treatment. 


In the audience poll before the debate there was overwhelming support for the negative position.   From my perspective as AIC’s e-Editor this was not a surprise, but frankly was somewhat disheartening.  I was pleasantly surprised that whether due to reason or impassioned delivery,  it was the Affirmative Team who managed to sway more people to their side when the poll was repeated after the debate concluded.  While this was clearly still a minority view, it showed that there are compelling reasons for us to be putting our material online. Congratulations to all involved.

7 thoughts on “AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting (2012): The Great Debate – Part I”

  1. Here are some additional talking points from the Affirmative Team that were used as part of the rebuttal and summary statements….courtesy of Karen Pavelka:

    Significant harm has been done to cultural heritage materials because the owner/curator has received and acted on poor advice.
    • Do it yourself treatments that result in damage to the object
    • Bad advice from poorly trained practitioners

    Conservation treatment is expensive, and therefore limited to high value objects; cultural heritage is comprised of a much more complex fabric/web.
    • Archives adopted a strategy of holdings maintenance long ago that has proved effective.
    • Conservators more recently have adopted the concept of collection conservation, in fact AIC has a new network devoted to that.
    • We need to admit that it’s not only the pretty, rare things that are worthy of care.

    Although we have tried to create ties and alliances with other communities we remain somewhat isolated.
    • The difference between a conservator and a terrorist is that one can negotiate with a terrorist. (Joke going around ALA.)

    Sharing information in all its complexity will help to teach a respect for the profession.
    • Secrecy breeds mistrust.
    • The key to the statement is “accurate and complete.”
    • On-line can be pre-recorded videos, or it can be live sessions with interested parties using Skype, Adobe Meetings, or such technologies that are becoming more easily accessible.
    • Most people can be taught to perform simple treatments such as dry cleaning.
    • When the difficulty of designing and performing complex treatments is clearly explained, as well as the risks of what can go wrong, most people do not want to subject highly valued or cherished objects to that risk.
    • When presenting a complex treatment, a less complicated solution can be offered as well. (Put it in a damn box.)
    • The general public, when they think about physical objects at all, tends to have a pretty simplistic understanding of them, i.e. all tintypes are equally subject to rust and all iron gall ink is equally subject to corrosion. (Not to mention that there are only two kinds of paper, handmade and pulp paper.)

    We serve our own profession by making the information available.
    • Resources for professional development are always tight.
    • This is a way to reach conservators in isolated and rural areas.
    • This is a way to find information that might be somewhat tangential to your area of conservation and evaluate whether or not one can take something on.

    We have the precedent of other professions
    • It is possible to find all the information one needs to wire a house, and yet most of us will call an electrician. Electricians have effectively communicated that if houses are wired poorly, people die.
    • Medical textbooks and scholarly articles are freely available, medicine is exploring haptic technology for training, yet most of us choose to see doctors.

  2. This debate looked like a lot of fun..only wish I could have been there!
    I have additional problems with this idea of having complete how-to guides online.
    *One is that there is usually more than one right way to do most things. Who gets to decide which is the “most accurate” best way for everything? Are we really advocating formula treatments?
    *A treatment that will work on one artifact might be disastrous when applied to an identical-looking object in a different state of preservation. Can this discernment really be taught in a video?
    *How can you teach experience online? Almost all of us learned not only by reading journals, but by doing, with the guidance of other human beings: making sure we do no damage, teaching us to detect nuances of condition and manufacture, and subtle hands-on techniques that would be impossible to capture in a video. Not everything can be accomplished by looking and reading. Can the public really be trusted to try their new-found knowledge on a common teacup BEFORE tackling the Meissen?

    By the way, we go to doctors because of their experience in discerning which of the myriad ailments we actually have, but also because it is ILLEGAL to write your own prescriptions. And DIY’ers know that you have to call a certified electrician for some critical jobs, because published building codes and regulations demand it. It is why warrantees become null and void if you break the seals on the internal powersources of electronics. I know from experience that following a reputable how-to-guide to fix a washing machine can sometimes lead to the ruination of said appliance, thanks to the lack of experience and appropriate tools! Washing machines are replaceable. Cultural heritage is not.

    I am all for education: proper care, storage, handling and display, and teaching how to recognizing instability and deterioration. Online conservaton classes are terrific. But people are notoriously bad judges of their own abilities. Publishing detailed, sanctioned how-to’s will encourage experimentation no matter how many caveats you include (if the advice “Do not try this at home” actually worked, America Funniest Home Videos would be very boring indeed).

    Do I take myself too seriously? …GUILTY!

  3. I too am very sorry to have missed this live and am grateful to Rachel (and all the other bloggers) for having provided us with as much information as they have.

    I’d like to thank the previous speaker for sharing her thoughts and put myself firmly on the side of the affirmative.

    Yes, there is usually more than one way to achieve a result, and having as many as possible in ones toolroll is critical. There are so many variables to the work we do and room for as much insight as we can find. Who gets to decide? Well, who decides now? We get it anecdotally, first hand in talks/workshops, from books and articles, and MANY other sources. It is up to us as practitioners to use the sum of our knowledge and experience to make the best decision and if novel share it so others may benefit as we have. Formula treatments work for less than we think once we start.

    How is a video different from sitting in a presentation. Often a video will show more if the camera operator is skillful. One can learn a lot watching hands move, and often one can even contact the presenters (after all they are likely our peers) with questions. I do agree though that for primary training nothing beats face-to-face, followed by any and all options for learning. But for those with limited abilities to travel, for whatever reason, all these developments have been a huge benefit.

    I think we need to be very careful with lumping everything we treat into the “cultural heritage” category, something that Barbara Appelbaum spoke about so well last year. If an individual wants to repair their Meißen with Duco ™ cement isn’t that really their decision? What about their family Bible or a cookbook…? There may be many reasons they don’t contact a conservator… We can’t save the world from itself. We can inform, reach out, and offer our resources and hope for the best. If it was screwed up, then we will try to help cheerfully and charge accordingly.

    In terms of training, I have seen formally trained conservators do more damage than autodidacts as well as the opposite. We need to be careful in how we judge others. Even highly skilled conservators make mistakes, something we need to minimize with lifelong learning. Publishing how-to’s (in any format) is something that is already happening and that genie escaped the bottle with the first book/article written and the popular press discussing treatments (controversial or otherwise) provides further food for though. People, conservators or otherwise are finding them, just as they do information about complex medical conditions/treatments and I know of autodidacts that invest more in reference resources than formally trained peers. Sometimes they will try things at home, other times it satisfies their curiosity and they’ll do nothing (because they can’t or $$$), and perhaps they may even come to one of us.

    I for my part will continue to share of my field (book/paper conservation and binding) in general articles/presentations, detailed how-tos, webinars, videos, and whatever works, and share it freely. Audiences will vary and caveats will be given as needed, but the more people know the better for us all.

    Unrepentingly yours,

  4. These debates appear to have been very fun to witness and participate in, as well as having initiated an enjoyable new forum for discussing topics at AIC meetings which are thought provoking and useful for the profession to be considering. Congratulations to the organizers and all participants!

    Rather than commenting specifically on any of the issues discussed, I would just like to point out that comparing the numbers in an audience who change their opinion from one side of a debated question to the other is an ingenious setup which inherently stacks the outcome of those concluding “results” against whichever side of the argument had more supporters to begin with. In fact, a viewpoint that almost everyone in the audience initially agrees with faces a steep numerical challenge, simply because departure of only a small percentage of their much larger segment of the audience to the minority’s side will cause them to “lose” a side-switching poll, unless they can succeed in drawing a larger number (and substantially higher percentage) of converts from that much smaller minority pool. This is all just to say that I hope the final poll “results” aren’t themselves used to draw any decision-making conclusions about the issue debated.

  5. I’m grateful for this and the other write up of this event. I have to say how fantastic all of the debaters were on this topic — they were all very impressive and demonstrated how we can and need to be serious and at the same time willing to be fun and not take ourselves too seriously.

    I appreciate Mark van Gelder’s analytic approach to the results and respond only in that of course there was no “official” conclusion from the debate. My personal conclusion was that the Great Debate was good, and that in the end everyone won in some way or another.

  6. Thank you for these thoughtful and informative posts ! A pleasure to read them.

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