ECPN’s Follow-Up to the Spring Webinar on Accepting, Preventing, and Learning from Mistakes – Survey Results

During the month leading up to ECPN’s webinar “Picking Up the Pieces: Accepting, Preventing, and Learning from Mistakes as an Emerging Conservation Professional,” which took place on April 7, 2017, ECPN disseminated a survey over various conservation listservs and the ECPN Facebook page. The purpose of this survey was to increase transparency regarding mistakes and inspire a dialogue on this subject in the field. Responses were requested for the following prompts:

  • “Please describe a conservation-related mistake or setback you have experienced, and how you responded to, managed, and ultimately resolved this issue.”
  • “What did you learn from this experience?”
  • “How have you taken precautions to avoid the reoccurrence of this mistake?”

Sincere thanks to the individuals who participated in this survey! Twelve responses were received, with the majority of respondents choosing to remain anonymous. These answers contained some incredibly valuable pieces of advice and words of wisdom. If we look at these submissions through the lens of different categories of error, as webinar presenter Michele Marincola discussed, one response fit into the category of rule-or knowledge-based error, an “error of ignorance”; two responses fit into the category of “setback”; and nine responses fit into the category of “errors of execution – errors of planning or performance.”

An “error of ignorance” is a type of mistake that involves the lack of knowledge or skill required to complete a task, often complicated by a bias towards what has worked in the past. The case recorded in the survey described inappropriately transferring a treatment procedure learned from textile dry-cleaning methods to a birchbark basket. The author noted that this incident occurred approximately thirty years ago and pointed to the danger of becoming over-confident in one’s knowledge. As Michele mentioned during the webinar, this is precisely the sort of mistake that tends to happen more commonly in the early stages of one’s career, but the rapidly expanding knowledge base in conservation can make us all susceptible to this type of error.

For the two setbacks, the first response described multiple attempts applying to conservation graduate schools, and the second addressed difficulty with managing client expectations. Both of these examples stress the importance of communication, having a realistic perspective, and staying mentally flexible.

The rest of the responses dealt specifically with mistakes made during treatment. “Errors of execution” is a category that indicates a situation where the conservation professional knew how to execute a treatment step, but failed to do so for whatever reason. Of these types of responses, two involved instances of misplaced tacks damaging paintings, and two involved damage to artwork due to impact from nearby equipment (a microscope in one case, and a camera setup in the other). Another involved failing to properly secure the artwork itself. These are not uncommon errors and could all be considered errors of planning, in which proper precautions would have mitigated the risk of damage occurring. Isabelle Brajer states in her article “Taking the Wrong Path,” that “collective errors often have more impact on our profession, largely because of increased exposure.”[1] It is acknowledging the prevalence of this sort of mistake that allows us to develop preventive rules of thumb: for example, collecting tacks in a jar, or always tying paintings to an easel. Some of the other mistakes took the form of errors of execution: a chisel slipping when removing plaster from a stone relief; unintentionally dissolving part of a paper artifact weakened by mold; or grabbing the wrong bottle when preparing an epoxy.

One respondent mentioned feeling stressed at the time of the error and subsequently developed strategies for slowing down, focusing, and mentally preparing to approach a treatment. Individuals generally described themselves as “devastated” or “horrified” when these instances occurred, but it was acknowledged that the mistakes were valuable learning experiences.

Other thought-provoking and impactful excerpts from the responses are listed below:

“You may think you won’t drop that tool, spill a solvent, or lose track of your tacks. I believe it’s safer to assume you will do all of those things and more. Anything that can go wrong probably has gone wrong for someone and it could easily go wrong for you. It’s not defeatist to acknowledge the commonality of human error and take appropriate preventive measures.”

“Sadly, one remembers one’s mistakes more vividly than one’s successes.”

“I think many of us have a strong inner voice we hear or a feeling that we have right before something goes wrong. This incident made me learn to listen to that voice, and know that when I ‘hear’ it, I need to put down my tool and stop for a moment.”

“We put so much effort into avoiding mistakes that sometimes we forget to acknowledge they exist. I think that can lead to an unfortunate dichotomy between the theory and reality of how we will react to those situations.”

“I spent many, many years focusing on my treatment work, and neglected to get out there and meet colleagues, write, speak, share. I regret that for many reasons. So I would say that an important part of your professional life is to reach out, in whatever way feels right for you. Mentoring, outreach, committee involvement. There may be periods in your life when you are sidelined from treatment work, and you will be glad for the other avenues.”

As Tony Sigel, another of the webinar presenters, mentioned in his response to a question about reluctance to discuss mistakes, both individuals and the profession must be willing to change for this attitude to shift. Redefining the culture in conservation to enable free discussion of mistakes and setbacks can only happen one conservation professional at a time, and I would like to commend these individuals who were willing to share their experiences!

Please visit ECPN’s post on Conservators Converse following up on the webinar for Q&A and Further Resources.


[1] 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.