ECPN’s webinar “Picking Up the Pieces: Accepting, Preventing, and Learning from Mistakes as an Emerging Conservation Professional” took place on April 7, 2017 and featured presentations by Ayesha Fuentes, Geneva Griswold, Michele Marincola, and Tony Sigel. Please see the previous blog post announcing the webinar for more extensive biographies of our speakers, and visit AIC’s YouTube Channel for the full recording of the webinar. Many thanks to the speakers, my fellow ECPN officers, and the AIC board and staff who made this program possible!
Several questions from viewers could not be addressed during the webinar due to time constraints; however, the panelists have generously answered them here. This post also includes an extended bibliography and further resources. A supplemental blog post will discuss the responses to the survey ECPN disseminated requesting stories of mistakes and setbacks.
How would you suggest opening a dialogue with your supervisor about mistake-making at the outset of a pre-program or graduate internship? How can you initiate a discussion about how to respond and what sort of institutional protocol to follow in the case of an accident?
Michele Marincola: Since this can be an unfamiliar or even awkward topic to broach, I suggest mentioning/describing the webinar and how it prompted you to think about mistake-making in an internship. Then ask if the company or institution has a preferred protocol to follow in the event an accident with an artwork occurs. Most museums have an Accident Report form that the security department initiates – this form may or may not be sufficient. In addition, not all mistakes cause visible damage, and the ideal protocol to follow might be a discussion rather than a form to fill out. Your question could be a great way to open the dialogue and effect positive change!
Doctors long ago instituted what are called M&Ms (Morbidity and Mortality reviews) after a patient in their care dies. They admit failure to their colleagues in order to teach and learn. Over the decades of my career conservators have shown consistent resistance to the discussion of treatment failures. I think there must be some powerful forces acting upon us that we haven’t discussed. What might they be? Could one possibility be that there is a kind of profession-wide fear of shaming that has prevented individual conservators from doing what this webinar attempted, to learn from failure?
Tony Sigel: I think “shaming” is both too harsh, and too simple a term to describe the issue. The reasons why conservators are reluctant to discuss and acknowledge mistakes are many, and start with simple human nature—when your job is to preserve and protect works of cultural property, it is very difficult to admit that you have caused harm. An unwillingness to confront and admit mistakes is true of most people–in all professions. Modern science and ethics-based art and artifact conservation is relatively young as a profession, and from birth has fought to create its own identity separate from the disdained practice of restoration, and the depredations of unlettered previous restorers.
The conservator is the standard bearer of a new profession, and the pressure is great to be an authority, translating modern “science-based” conservation to owners, curators, archaeologists, to be able to answer all questions and consistently carry out treatments, to create safe environments, and the myriad other duties that are involved. Add to that normal human ego, the fear of possibly losing one’s position and livelihood, and, within the profession, the lack of a culture and organized structures that allow examination and discussion of setbacks and errors, and you have a broader view of the situation.
Error is an unavoidable and normal consequence of human endeavor, but is essential to its development. To solve our particular problem, both individual conservators, and the profession must be willing to change our culture and restructure itself, perhaps by creating appropriate venues to acknowledge these valuable lessons, learn from them, and encourage discussion.
The examples of mistakes we’ve discussed have generally centered around treatment, but one of the mistakes/sestbacks submitted to ECPN dealt with not having adequately managed the expectations of the owner of a cultural heritage object. Another spoke about the regret of having focused disproportionately on treatment and neglecting to engage with writing, speaking, and meeting others in the field. Could you comment on what other sorts of non-treatment mistakes we tend to encounter as conservation professionals?
Ayesha Fuentes: I’m not sure these are mistakes so much as they are part of professional development. Communicating our decision-making processes and limitations should be part of our expertise. In both of these challenges, the conservators learned how to manage the expectations of both the clients and themselves. Our professional contribution is often our technical skills and knowledge, and that’s been the emphasis in education, but I think there is an increasing awareness of how conservation relies on a larger skill set that includes consultation, communication and project management.
Have you ever had to describe a mistake that you’ve made in an interview? If so, how did you broach the subject?
Geneva Griswold: I have been asked in several interviews to describe how I overcame a situation that did not go as planned. The topic has never been presented as a “mistake,” however the intention of the question is the same: to illustrate how you think and to assess your ability to adapt. I find that juxtaposing two situations can be helpful; the first defines the challenge, and the second shows how you applied lessons learned in the first. Being aware of your mistake, setback, or failure is the important part, as is thinking reflexively about how to improve. If you feel uncomfortable broaching a mistake made during treatment, instead consider setbacks that occur in communication between team members, poor time estimation, or failing to meet a deadline. There are many ways to illustrate your ability to think critically, so prepare your best response prior to the interview and be confident in broaching the subject when it arises.
Thank you once again to Michele, Tony, Ayesha, and Geneva! ECPN is grateful to the speakers for their participation in the webinar and for sharing their research and thoughts on this topic. If you have additional comments or questions on this subject, please email ECPN.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please see the following resources for more information on this subject.
Brajer, Isabelle. 2009. Taking the wrong path: learning from oversights, misconceptions,failures and mistakes in conservation. Examples from Wall Painting Conservation in Denmark. CeROArt 3: L’errer, la faute, le faux. Accessed 2017.
Fuentes, Ayesha and Geneva Griswold. 2012. The ‘Dead-Bucket’: An Inexperienced Conservators Guide for Evaluating Setbacks. 2012 Association of North American Graduate Programs in Conservation Conference, the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.
Marincola, Michele. 2010. Blink Twice: Making Mistakes in Conservation. Paper Presented at the 38th Annual Meeting, Milwaukee Wisconsin, May 13, 2010.
Mancusi-Ungaro, Carol. 2003. Embracing Humility in the Shadow of the Artist. In Personal Viewpoints: Thoughts about Paintings Conservation, edited by Mark Leonard. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute.
Recent Setbacks in Conservation 1, 3, 4. 1985. Ottawa: International Institute for Conservation-Canadian Group, 1985.