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

If you read the previous Great Debate Part I post feel free to skip this introduction and jump down to the meat of the post, the team’s statements below,…

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 each team, then members of the audience were allowed to ask questions and each debate team was given time to respond, followed by closing arguments.  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 method for choosing a winner elicited some amusing debate in and of itself with Richard exclaiming in mock exasperation “You are supposed to debate each other – not me!”

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!  Richard was very clear that debaters were chosen for their willingness to participate and were not necessarily representing their personal views on the topics.  This was notably pointed out in a “gotcha” moment when the Affirmative team asked Negative Team member Hugh Shockey if he would be willing to go without the fabulous microscope stand donated by a tour visitor!

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 (Hugh’s dark glasses and Richard’s big (read geeky) floppy bow tie.  I think this exemplified that it is possible to debate topics of real importance within our profession and 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 second 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 in yourself by commenting here on the blog.

TOPIC #2: Having conservators perform treatments in the gallery is the most successful way to generate funding for museums and raise awareness about the profession

For the affirmative:

  • Vanessa Muros
  • Camille Breeze
  • Kristen Adsit

 Opening Statement:

Obviously having conservators perform treatments in the public eye is the best way to raise awareness of the profession and funds for an institution.

These exhibitions cause more people to visit the institution.  In 2006 before they started performing in-gallery treatments, the UK conservation nonprofit National Trust had 35,000 annual visitors.  6 years into a campaign to prioritize in-gallery treatments whenever possible, they now average 72,000, an over 50% increase in visitorship.

In-gallery treatment gets the undivided attention of visitors, and engage people more fully than is possible with other outreach methods. The interpersonal interaction with a conservator is also more impactful than a more mediated method of outreach, such as videos or publications.

In-gallery treatments demystify the role of the professional conservator and the process of caring for our cultural heritage. Even other workers inside the institution can understand the role of the conservator in a new way when they are able to witness a treatment in process, as paintings conservators at the Indianapolis Museum of Art pointed out after their 2009 in-gallery treatment of Sebastiano Mainardi’s 1507 altarpiece.

These interventions further generate public interest through increased press coverage of such treatments. According to Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the lead conservator of the National Museum of American History’s public treatment of the Star Spangled Banner, that project generated more than 1,500 clips in national and international newspapers, radio and TV.

This is a great way to showcase the complexity and centrality of the conservators role in the museum.  Once you have engaged an audience, you have the opportunity to create a complete and nuanced understanding of our work.  However you will only get that chance if you first have their attention, and the best way to get that attention is by performing in-gallery treatments.

Public conservation treatments directly generate funds for the museum.

  • A great example of this comes from this year’s Angels project at the San Miguel chapel in Santa Fe. The project manager Jake told me of a donor who both gave money and volunteered his time as a direct result of seeing the restoration work that was already taking place.
  • As our opponent Hugh Shockey should know, the first fellowship at the Lunder Center was funded by a donor who saw Amber Kerr-Allison treating a painting

Giving to support in-gallery treatments amounts to more bang for your buck.  It not only enables a specific conservation intervention to be performed, but it also amounts to funding for education and outreach.

This can generate goodwill within the conservator’s institution since other departments such as education and marketing also benefit from the in-gallery treatment project.  That kind of goodwill can help enable the Conservation department to achieve other goals.

In-gallery treatments demonstrate that funding for conservation is a good return on investment. By showing the painstaking process of treatment, documentation and outreach, it demonstrates to the viewer that we’re multifaceted professionals who much be resourceful, and why treatment can take so much time.

And the results of your donation are tangible, which further engages donor and allows some ownership of their donation and the project

Honestly, how can they argue against this? What else could be more effective at raising awareness of the profession than showing and talking to people about what we do?  What other means of giving benefits the donor and the institution more?


For the negative:

  • Suzanne Davis
  • Hugh Shockey
  • Sharra Grow

Opening Statement:

Having conservators perform treatments in the gallery is NOT the most successful way to generate funding for museums and raise awareness about the profession.


  • The quality of treatment done on site is never the same as that done in the lab, therefore, conservation is at a disadvantage at representing itself in the galleries.
  • What kind of awareness do we want the visiting audience to have?
  • By treating artwork in the gallery, visitors have a skewed understating of where/how conservation is done, taken out of the context of the studio/lab where all needed supplies and conditions are provided for the best treatment… for example, working away from the organization of the lab presents treatment as disorganized and haphazard as it requires frequent shuttling of tools and materials not originally anticipated for conducting treatment
  • The experience and perception of each visitor is dependent on interaction with the conservator leaving accurate understanding of the treatment outside the conservator’s control if the visitor chooses not to interact. Seeing a work mid-treatment denies the visitor the opportunity to experience it as intended by the maker. Without a full understanding of what they are seeing, they can question the stewardship of the museum in caring for its collection.
  • The stress of managing treatment and public interaction necessarily creates a distraction, which misrepresents treatment protocol, and neither treatment nor public interaction are done to the best of the conservator’s ability.

Further, we would ask; who is the target audience when doing treatment in the gallery?

  •  Conservation on display in the galleries cannot generate awareness on its own without addition publicity channels, as visitation to the museum is already limited to self-selected patrons, thus negating the idea that conservation in the galleries is what generates awareness.
  • In addition, the giving potential of the visiting public is limited and is therefore not an ideal source of fundraising, as it is widely understood that wealthy individual patrons are more capable of supporting the expensive endeavor of conservation. And public display minimizes the incentive for higher level donors seeking exclusive access and experience in the museum.

Today we are not debating whether or not treatment in the galleries may be a nice idea and possibly worth pursuing. We are arguing whether or not performing treatments in the gallery is the most successful way to (1) generate funding and (2) raise awareness about the profession. Our points clearly show above that it is NOT.


As with the first topic, the majority of the room’s packed audience agreed with the Negative Team when polled before the debate.  Yet once again, the Affirmative Team won the debate as the “after” poll showed that they convinced more people to change their opinion.  I did ask a question of the debaters and and said that I personally am not sure whether in gallery treatments are the “best” way but every institution I’ve worked out brought their big ticket donors into the lab for VIP tours so it seems to me that Development Officers find what we do to be compelling at bringing in the funds!  The Negative team nimbly stepped around my question and answered the question that they wanted to answer!  But I must admit that I love working in the gallery and interacting with the public.  I find that some visitors are very insightful and knowledgeable and others ask questions that are completely inane.  It is a good reminder that we have lots of audiences at any given museum or site and that we have to figure out ways to serve them and the collections.   Have you worked in a visible conservation lab or done in gallery treatments? Let us know about your experiences!

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