AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Exhibiting Ourselves: Presenting Conservation

This interactive session was chaired by Suzanne Davis (Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan) and Emily Williams (Colonial Williamsburg), and focused on issues related to exhibiting conservation goals and activities to a public audience. Attendees of the session had the chance to hear presentations that examined a number of conservation outreach models and methods, and were then invited to brainstorm solutions to some of the issues raised during the talks. Before introducing the speakers, Suzanne Davis expressed why she thinks exhibiting conservation is important and effective: doing so raises awareness and support, by the fact that conservation as a field fascinates people of many interests, making it an ideal subject for exhibition.

A diverse array of conservation outreach cases were presented at a lively pace of 15 minutes per talk. Tom Learner’s presentation on the exhibition of De Wain Valentine’s Gray Column at the J. Paul Getty museum showed how conservators were able to balance very technical information on the process of making the object with thought-provoking questions about how to preserve the artist’s original intent. This was done by including polyester maquettes in the exhibit space, along with supporting media that ran images and video of Valentine in action. Cynthia Albertson discussed the challenges and successes of exhibiting the conservation behind MoMA’s project to reunify Diego Rivera’s portable murals. Items featured in the gallery – including X-ray films showing the walls’ internal structures as well as examples of the artist’s materials – were accompanied by online features and a fresco-making course at NYU.

Following these initial talks the audience divided up into discussion groups and were invited to consider some questions, which had been printed out and left on each group’s table. My table decided to tackle the following questions (paraphrased):

Q. A lot of energy goes into creating conservation exhibits but is the conservation community aware that these exhibits are happening or do we stumble on them when visiting other museums?

A. The table felt that we do generally try to follow what our colleagues are doing, but that there is no centralized platform to find this information. News about exhibitions tends to be trickled onto web-media platforms like Facebook via word of mouth (or click).

Q. Should we as a community be more involved in helping to promote them?

A. Yes.

Q. Through what paths?

A. Perhaps through institutional or affiliated blogs.. this could be done by working closely with the institution’s social media person.

Q. Do we need to reach out to our own community?                                                                                            

A. Yes, perhaps through posts on the AIC Blog, which can be linked to other social media platforms. At this point in the discussion the idea of an online conservation ‘bulletin board’ was raised – a location to post these types of exhibitions. A platform that allows for visually-impacting, post-it-like messages of events would be useful – like Pinterest.

Q. How should we ‘outreach’ about outreach in AIC?                                                                                                            

A. One member of the group pointed out that this is already happening – AIC’s in-development PR Toolkit, which is hosted on the WIKI, offers a list of traditional and social media tools to help conservators reach out to their intended audience.

Talks resumed with Irene Peters’ discussion of the challenges of exhibiting day-to-day activities in a visible conservation laboratory at the Musical Instrument Museum. Digital monitors explaining the purpose of fume trunks, docents trained to talk about conservation, and open tool cabinets displayed close to the visitors’ window were among the techniques used to transform an active lab into an ongoing conservation exhibit. Sanchita Balachandran talked about how outreach is an integral part of the conservator’s role in a university museum. Her work at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum has encompassed everything from object treatment and exhibition to providing access to collections through courses and online didactics. The session’s final speaker, Christopher McAfee of the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, discussed the various approaches the department has used to educate staff and patrons on the proper handling and care of archival collections. His training video on the subject – filmed in the style of an 1960’s airline safety video, flashing tooth * smile included – elicited laughter throughout the room.

The session ended with a final panel discussion of the questions our breakout groups had tackled after the first two talks. A rep from each table joined the panel at the front of the room, and we worked through the following questions (paraphrased here):

Q. Should conservators share information on how they treat artworks?                                                                    

A. Attendees seemed to favor sharing preventive information over explanations of treatment, though Christopher McAfee pointed out that explaining the process of a particular treatment, along with the caveat that trying to repair something yourself will likely make it worse, has led patrons to approach trained conservators for help instead.

Q. Do we know what our audience knows about conservation?                                                                 

A. We don’t, although surveys could help us to better understand the extent of visitors’ knowledge (as has been done at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan).

Q. Is it valuable to weave conservation information into gallery exhibits on a regular basis?                          

A. This could be challenging for space reasons, but there is plenty of room online for this information to be regularly featured.

Q. Does conservation outreach take too much time?          

A. Perhaps, but if we work as teams with the institution’s media departments time could be reasonably split and balanced. Ironically, our table ran out of time before we could tackle this particular question.

The balance of presentations with group and panel discussion made this outreach session quite valuable. I feel as if I’ve walked away with some answers to the questions many of us have about whether conservation exhibition is worth the added time and energy. If we work to promote our presence both in the gallery and online, I think these efforts will be worthwhile.

Outreach Session on K-12 Education – next Thursday at 2:30!

We’ve lined up a great panel of conservators, two local teachers and the Director of Education at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum to discuss how conservators can make an impact on K-12 audiences. As co-chairs of the AIC K-12 Working Group, we wanted to share a bit more with you about what we’ll be talking about and doing in this session than we were able to share in the conference program. We feel strongly that not only is it a lot of fun to work with elementary, middle and high school kids, but it gives us conservators a great chance to broaden their interests in art and in the sciences, and promotes value for our shared cultural heritage. What kid can’t tell you how acid rain is hurting the environment? Why shouldn’t they also be able to tell you what it’s doing to outdoor sculpture?

In this panel we’re going to focus mostly on the practical questions – what kinds of conservation-based topics translate well to these students? Who exactly is your audience and where will you encounter them – in your studio, in a gallery, in the classroom? How do you make inroads into your local schools, and find out who makes the decisions on what to teach? And how on earth do you fit this into your already busy work life? We’ll hear from conservators who have established tremendously successful programs, and hear directly from teachers and museum educators how they work – or would like to work – with conservators.

Then we’ll break up into focus groups, each one taking on a different age group (K-4, 5-8, and 9-12) and come up with some great ideas for topics, hands-on activities, and related explorations into other subject areas like history, social studies or math, so teachers can integrate these ideas across their school’s curriculum. These ideas will be further developed by the K-12 Working Group (and any interested volunteers, hint hint!) and be made available as lesson plans for conservators to take into their local schools, or for educators to use as springboards for working with conservators. The possibilities are wide open and we are excited to have a great and productive session. Please join us!

Details: Conservation and Education 1 Outreach Session, Thursday May 10th, 2:30-4, in Picuris/Santa Ana/Sandia

The 2012 Great Debate at AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting (Updated)

I’ve had countless great debates with conservators at AIC, but I think they’ve usually happened outside in the hallway, over coffee, dinner, or drinks.

This is year that all changes.  

For the first time ever, at the 2012 Annual Meeting in Albuquerque I’ll be moderating the Great Debate at AIC.  This is a modified Oxford-Style Debate that will feature two tough topics that will be debated by the best and brightest minds in the field of conversation today.  (I got the idea from seeing it at the Annual Meeting for Museum Computer Network; you can watch one of those debates here.)

An Update & Important Note: I have placed debaters on one side or the other arbitrarily!  The side they are arguing from may not actually be the side they truly believe. This was done in an attempt to surface the best argument from both sides.

So, without further ado, here are the topics and the teams set to do battle:

First Statement: 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.

Affirmative Team

  • Karen Pavelka
  • Paul Messier 
  • Mary Striegel

Negative Team

  • Scott Carrlee 
  • Victoria Montana Ryan 
  • Matt Skopek 

Second Statement: Having conservators perform treatments in the gallery is the most successful way to generate funding for museums and raise awareness about the profession.

Affirmative Team

  • Vanessa Muros 
  • Kristen Adsit 
  • Camille Myers Breeze

Negative Team

  • Suzanne Davis 
  • Hugh Shockey 
  • Sharra Grow 

To make the debate successful we’ll need lots of help from a highly engaged audience.  And I don’t mean just to cheer on your favorite team, we need you to participate in the Great Debate at AIC!

There will be a significant amount of time in the debate in which members of the audience will get to ask each team questions to which they  have to respond.  Plus, the audience will decide who wins the debate.

The goal of the Great Debate is to create a new forum at the Annual Meeting that encourages meaningful discussions and provides conservators the opportunity to demonstrate their capacity to address challenging issues directly, openly, and in a fun way.

So be sure to come out on Friday the 11th  from 2:00 to 3:30 pm to see your colleague do battle on stage in front of a lively audience.  I know I’m bias, but this is going to be the most fun you’ll have at the Annual Meeting this year!



AIC Annual Meeting Review on TheArtBlog

Read an excerpt below of Ethical Principles and Critical Thinking in Conservation  by Andrea Kirsh  in her June 7, 2011 post on theArtBlog below and then follow the link to the full post.  At the bottom of the ArtBlog post make sure you catch the interesting response by Ali Hyder Gadhi, Programme Officer (Conservation) Master Plan for Rehabilitation and Cultural Tourism, Moenjodaro. Sindh Pakistan.

At the largest annual meeting of the American Institute for the Conservatiom of Historic and Artistic Works in 20 years, 1100 conservators met in Philadelphia during the first week in June to discuss ethical principles and critical thinking in conservation. Traveling from as far as Japan, they included staff of major museums (the National Gallery of Art, British Museum), conservators in private practice, and many students in training.   They compared standards historically, across different types of artifact and from one country to another. The meeting included conservation scientists, who analyze materials of artworks and historical artifacts, and conservators specializing in paintings, archives, books, maps, video art, historical computer hardware, artifacts of contemporary performance art, ethnographic work that retains ceremonial use, architecture, fountains, historical toys and even boats.

Read the full post…

AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – General Session, June 1, “Restoring the Spirit and the Spirit of Restoration: Dresden’s Frauenkirche as Model for Bamiyan’s Buddhas” by James Janowski.

Big Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley. Photo courtesy of Volker Thewalt.

Sometimes conservation is more than the technical care of an object.  Sometimes, the working solutions to treatment of cultural heritage must rely on judgments, choices, and values unique to a people and a time.  James Janowski raises many ethical and philosophical questions in his presentation on the possible reconstruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.  He asks his audience to balance the needs of the historical record with religious and cultural values.

The Bamiyan Buddha’s were located along the silk road in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan.  These statues were the largest likenesses of Buddha’s in the world.  They had survived past damage from soldiers, weather, and time.  They were true survivors.  All that ended with the 2001 acts of cultural barbarism by the Taliban.  The cruel and wanton destruction of the Buddhas have left us with empty niches.  But much of the original material is still located in the valley as fragments of all shapes and sizes.  Could the Buddhas be reconstructed from original and replacement materials?  Should they be reconstructed?

Janowski turns to the destruction and reconstruction of the Dresden Frauenkirche as a model for the Bamiyan Buddhas.  The Frauenkirche was the most original protestant church constructed in Dresden.  During World War Two, the allied bombing damaged the church. The subsequent fires reached 1000 degree Farenheit and caused the church to buckle and crumble.  The church was much beloved by the people of Dresden.  The ruin served as a symbol of the culture and community.

Beginning in 1989 and 1990 the people of Dresden called for the church to be rebuilt as an “archeological reconstruction.”  The reconstruction resulted in much debate, but the project was approved in March 1991.  The reconstruction continued until October 2005 when the church was re-consecrated.  Architectural stone and elements were salvaged from the rubble and carefully cataloged.  Forty-five percent of the reconstructed church was made from original stone

The reconstruction of the Dresden Frauenkirche was considered a rousing success.  The process recharged the community.  The original and non-original materials were clearly distinguishable, so as not to erase the historical events that took place.  In the end, the project was adjudication between competing values.

Janowski argues that the integral restoration of the Buddhas with remaining original fragments should be considered in the future despite the 30-50 million dollar price tag. He notes that there must be a balancing of the religious and cultural values with the historical documentation of the event.  He also offers consequential values.  The reconstruction will have economic and political value and can serve as a unifying thread to the country.  He feels that at least one of the Buddhas could be reconstructed leaving the other as a “witness” to the destruction.  Janowski believes that the meaning and values of a restored sculpture outweigh the shock of the empty niches.

Janowski pushes the audience to think outside the box.  He forces us to think through the steps ahead and the possibilities beyond the norm.  [Blogger’s note:  on March 11, 2011, UNESCO told the Afghan government it does not support a rebuild project, citing concerns over funding priorities and authenticity. ]

39th Annual Meeting – General Session, June 1, “Conservation in the Twenty-First Century: Will a Twentieth Century Code of Ethics Suffice?” By Barbara Applebaum

Barbara Applebaum has always been known as a thinker who asks intriguing questions.  She is the author of the book “Conservation Treatment Methodology” published in 2007.  She serves up some of the same complex questions in the opening presentation of the 39th annual AIC meeting.  Applebaum demands that we think about the hard questions.  In this presentation, she examines the AIC code of ethics and guiding documents that define our profession both internally and to the outside world.

The AIC documents are made up of three levels of guidance.  The AIC Code of Ethics is aspirational in nature.  The guidelines for practice offer us the specifications of expected practice. The commentaries of the guidelines serve as section by section discussions on the minimum and optimum best practices. It is easiest to make changes to the commentaries.  For the most part they define things that we all learned growing up.  They guard against things like lying, cheating, and stealing.  Applebaum suggests that conservation professionals should read through the documents on a regular schedule.

Applebaum feels that the AIC guiding documents are as valid today as when they were first drafted.  She likens them to the “ten commandments,” and feels that they regulate the conservation practice accordingly.  Then she moves on to some of the most interesting questions of the presentation.  Does the detail focused nature of work with cultural heritage attract the personality that nitpicks and over analyzes the tasks at hand?  Are we a people searching for imperfections in the AIC Code?  Have we spent a decade looking inward at the issue of certification to the detriment of the profession?

We must fight the tide of negativity and take our place the outside world, Applebaum reminds us.  We must realistically evaluate all that is going on around us and understand the needs of the museum, private collectors and the public.  While the AIC guiding documents were drafted at a time when the profession was mostly institutionally focused, we increasingly work in private practice.  Our colleagues are diverse, working on heritage from ethnographic objects, architecture, archives and libraries among others in addition to works of art.

We must recognize that our work sometimes moves from the care of cultural property belonging to the whole human race to the intimate objects and personal property that never rises to the level of cultural heritage.  These items are things like a child’s drawing, a clay ashtray, etc. The usefulness of the AIC code of ethics on personal items is small.  Still, thorough professional training is required to practice conservation in an ethical manner on all objects.

Applebaum reminds us that we must educate others on the good we can do for people, with an emphasis on the added value we provide.  In our work, we must remember the conservation is as much about the people we help as it is about the chemistry and material of the object.

39th Annual Meeting – General Session, June 2 “Objects of Trauma, Finding the Balance” by Jane Klinger

Do the things that survive trauma become imbued with additional meaning?  Must conservators find and understand both the empirical and the non-empirical  when treating objects?  These questions are key to understanding the theme of Jane Klinger’s general session presentation on Objects of Trauma, Finding the Balance.  Klinger brings the Pathos to the conference.  She points out objects that become survivors of war, terror, assassination, or persecution, carry with them the emotion of the assault. Klinger is the Chief Conservator at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and brings to her presentation an intimate knowledge of treating objects of trauma. 

Klinger presents three main examples of the way Pathos plays a key role in the conservation of objects of trauma.  She begins by describing the top coat worn by Danish Resistance Fighter Jorgen Jespersen in 1944.  The coat, now located in the National Museum of Danish Resistance, is a symbol of national pride in the resistance of Nazi oppression.  According to Jespersen’s testimony, the Gestapo attempted to arrest him but he reached into his upper pocket and shot through his topcoat to wound and escape his captors.  In an example of the emotional weight of the object overshadowing it’s preservation, it appears that holes where added to the coat to emphasize the danger Jespersen survived.

The second example of the emotional weight associated with objects can be found in the Baker collection of objects at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Helen and Ross Baker were Americans who found themselves in Vienna during the time that Nazis took over the city.  They recorded the occupation and the closure of Jewish stores to non-Jews in both film and through diaries.  Their son, Stan Baker, later used the diaries to present the observations of his parents.  Upon donating the collection, the curators found that Stan had added notations to his mother’s diaries.  When the conservators were asked to remove the notations, they explained that the ink would still be faintly seen and impressions in the paper would be permanent.  Because of a thorough understanding of the emotional value as well as the physical condition, the decision was made to leave the notations as part of the historical record of the object.

Klinger uses objects that survived September 11 as a third example of Pathos and ethical considerations in the conservation of objects of trauma.  She discusses the Vesey Station Stairs and the Ladder Co. 3 Fire truck as objects that survived the horrors of 9/11.  The stairs have become a symbol of safety and escape to the survivors of the terrorist attacks.  The damaged fire truck carries with it the evidentiary authority of September 11, 2001.  Should the brutally damaged object be cleaned of the dust of 9/11?  Klinger argues that the emotions surrounding 9/11 are so emotionally raw that rational decisions may not be possible.

Through these examples, Klinger argues that it is the role of the conservator to incorporate rather than evade the Pathos of the object.  As a conservation scientist, there are times I get lost in the materials used and mechanics of deterioration of the object.  This talk serves as a vivid reminder of the added value of the emotions associated with the cultural object.