And now, a word from IMA’s Richard McCoy:
Ellen Carrlee is an objects conservator who lives in Alaska. We’ve never met in person and only know each other through these internets. Along with our other friend and objects conservator, Daniel Cull, we’ve decided to take turns this week writing aboutour ideas for “New Directions” for the American Institute for Conservation (AIC). I was a guest blogger for Ellen on Monday. My post up there in Alaska is filled with lots of crazy ideas. On Friday, Daniel Cull will make a post on his blog… who knows what he’s cooking up. Here’s Ellen’s offering:
Straight from Wikipedia:
Elitism is the belief or attitude that those individuals who are considered members of the elite—a select group of people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes—are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.
First things first: we need AIC and I respect the vital role it plays in our professionalism. You could say I was suckled at the AIC teat. Back in 1993, I was trying to find someone who would tell me what the heck “conservation” was. I made a long distance phone call to Jay Krueger, who my uncle told me was a friend of a friend, and one of this mysterious breed called “conservators.” It was quite a short conversation, and the upshot was “ask AIC.” I sent away for their brochures (by mail!) and poured over the requirements of the programs. It was the first of many times I turned to AIC to tell me what I needed to do.
In graduate school at NYU, the conservation professors referred frequently to the standards and ethics outlined by AIC and required us to follow them in our coursework. I became a member in 1997. As an emerging professional, I found myself moving to Alaska, the home of exactly three conservators: one was a contemporary from the Winterthur/Delaware program (Monica Shah) and the other was the man I had just married (Scott Carroll from the Buffalo program.)
I also accepted a job as a curator of collections and exhibits, and began a part-time business doing private conservation work. Suddenly I had a ton of questions about ethics, and the standards of practice I would have to live up to in starting a business. Again, I turned to AIC and studied its core documents carefully. I became more interested in listserves in order to stay informed about the conservation world, and frequently thumbed through the AIC directory to see if someone who had posted was affiliated with AIC and therefore steeped in the same professional standards I was familiar with.
Occasionally, someone with an excellent reputation and interesting postings was not listed in AIC at all, and I would wonder why. In 2006, I jumped through the hoops to become an AIC Professional Associate, which seemed like the closest thing to being vetted by a national professional conservation organization. I have used AIC and its core documents as a touchstone every step of my career.
WHY DOES AIC TICK PEOPLE OFF?
After I’d been in the field awhile, I began to hear more about why some people didn’t like AIC. It was elitist, some claimed. Critical and harsh to outsiders. It was behind the times. It didn’t do enough advocacy in the wider public arena to benefit its members. It had a history of excluding natural history, archaeology, and ethnographic conservation. It had a history of setting up confrontational or adversarial relationships with various groups of people: people who were not program-trained, restorers, foreigners, archaeologists, maritime conservators, etc. And there were a fair number of people who had been involved with AIC their entire careers but declared they were fed up, and membership in AIC had no benefits for them.
At first, I assumed they had just had run-ins with some of the more abrasive and powerful personalities that often dominate organizations like AIC. I daresay conservators can be a cantankerous and self-righteous lot. I still think that’s part of the issue. But I also think there is much to be learned (and perhaps a better path for the future) by studying the history of the organization. There could be a thesis written on that, no doubt.
Reading the “Murray Pease Report” and other early documents however, makes it clear that in the beginning, AIC was largely an organization of conservators specializing in paintings and sculpture. Individual artifacts of high monetary value that justified money being spent on their conservation. Those who identified as “conservators” were interested in developing standards to differentiate themselves from “restorers.” Conservators were scientifically and morally saving art from those who were using dubious recipe books and old wives’ tales to turn a fast buck at the peril of our heritage. Was this the beginning of an “us versus them” mentality? Throughout AIC’s history, the institutional culture has time and again organized itself around fighting “them.” Loosely defined, AIC’s critics have come to see themselves in “them” … anyone who disagrees with the AIC.
CHARISMATIC MEGAFAUNA / BIG SEXY ART
Following the recent debate/defeat of certification, it seems that the organization has now entered a period of introspection and re-evaluation. AIC is unlikely to break free of its aura of elitism. It is also doomed to be a venue for those who insist on shooting off their mouths in an undiplomatic fashion. But it does serve a very important role in conservation in the United States: it is our national professional organization. Let’s not underestimate that. But perhaps elitism has been at the root of conservation remaining separate from the museum world: separate programs, training curriculums, and conferences.
Conservation students are not taught much about the museum profession. Often, the conservator on staff is seen as the obstructionist. The one who says “no.” The one who goes by the book and makes everything difficult. The one who does not get invited to the table. Elitism is perhaps the cause of AIC’s biggest failure: people don’t know what conservation is. When I give a lab tour, I always have to define conservation. My good friends still mistake me for a curator. After more than 50 years as a profession (NYU’s Conservation Center was founded in 1960 and AIC in 1972) we still are scarcely known to the public. Plenty of people think we protect trees.
There is a term in the world of environmentalism: charismatic megafauna. It refers to the use of large popular animals like pandas and whales to leverage support and protection for whole ecosystems and less flashy critters. Conservators have traditionally focused on Big Sexy Art, and while some aspects of preventive conservation serve to improve the condition of all collections, a lot of our cultural heritage is still neglected. The Heritage Health Index indicates that 190 million artifacts are in peril, and many of them are in smaller museums with no conservator on staff and little funding to afford one.
These folks often post on listserves:
“How can I reshape this brittle basket in my collection?”
“There’s white fuzzy stuff on this saddle… is it mold?”
“How can I make this samovar shiny again?”
Often the answers come from their colleagues who are well-meaning but misguided. Hardware store commercial products and Martha Stewart-inspired recommendations are common. Occasionally someone might jump and scold, “Stop! You have to consult a conservator!” Pragmatically and financially, many of these objects are not going to get a proper conservation treatment. But they can be saved from poor treatment choices with just a little in-depth expertise and gentle words of caution in plain English.
Dave Harvey is the champion of this kind of service. Marc Williams is also thoughtful and generous with his knowledge. This is the kind of public relations that the conservation world needs more of. Here’s some of the love! Jump right in. Individuals are sometimes working like this, but the profession is not. What if providing this kind of public voice were a factor in assessing PAs and Fellows?
Elitism is not solely the realm of conservators. There is brand of elitism found among folks who have passion for computers. People who are conversant in Blogs, Wikis, Twitter, Ning, Delicious, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace…those people are the future. They are connected. They have the answers. Or do they? While the potential of many of these platforms is appealing, the actual content is often rather meager. Visually stimulating and easy to digest, they remind me of the recent trend toward museums as entertainment. The blockbuster! The wall of graphics! The touch-me interactive! I say, show me the REAL STUFF. Give me content. What is it made of? Who made it? Why?
Web 2.0 definitely has its place. It can function in ways that AIC can’t or won’t. AIC has a hard time responding in a timely manner on current events and 2.0 folks can take advantage of front line opportunities for PR in our profession. Viral marketing! Professional organizations are a bit like museums: slow, careful, and deliberative. Not designed to jump headlong into new things but rather hang back, observe, and help history sort itself out. AIC would have a hard time keeping up with Daniel Cull in terms of relevance anyway. Maneuverability is an unfair expectation of AIC. That should be up to us. And perhaps our smaller and more nimble regional organizations like WAAC and MRCG.
WHERE IS THE LOVE?
This month, I’m joining the AIA and the SAA. As a conservator of ethnographic and archaeological materials, I was not even aware until last week that the SAA has a group about perishables. While I enjoy the AIC annual conference, I think I’ll be aiming to go less frequently in order to direct resources at attending conferences in allied professions. This has been a talking point in AIC for some time, but there seem to be only a handful who walk the walk. And I am posting information liberally on the internet…info that might have been considered taboo in the past.
When I was in graduate school, treatment reports done as part of the core courses were saved in a file cabinet in the library. But it was locked. Students had to request the key, and it was discouraged. I never found out why, and I was too timid to ask. In some ways, I feel the conservation profession is locked in that way, particularly when it comes to availability of treatment information, lest it “fall into the wrong hands.” After more than a decade in the profession, I have come to believe that in many cases, lack of treatment information does not generally force those objects into the competent hands of conservators. Nor does it mean that the object won’t be treated. People will just give it their best shot. Inside the tent pissing out or outside the tent pissing in?
I have had several stimulating telephone conversations with Jim Jobling at the Conservation Research Lab at Texas A&M. Certainly there are many ways that his lab is not “AIC compliant.” And you know what? He doesn’t care. He does his work the best he can according to the parallel universe of standards that have developed in maritime conservation world. Google the names of people who treat shipwreck material or wetsite archaeology and most of those names are not coming from the AIC world. In fact, many of those names have been affiliated with the Texas A&M program. Or the program at East Carolina University. If AIC cannot or will not be more inclusive then it is up to us.
I have long suspected that People Who Know Things tend to share generously, while people who are not sure of their knowledge tend to be defensive and secretive. How about being the change we want to see? I’m trying to put content on my blog that looks like info I’d like to find. What if Richard Wolbers had his notes on cleaning techniques that worked and ones that didn’t right there on the web? What if Tony Sigel had a series of brilliant YouTube clips showing tips for treating ceramics? Rogue exhibit critiques with Toby Raphael?
Only a small percentage of what I am doing is unique or mature enough to bother jumping through the hoops of journal publication.
But plenty of my files are interesting…
…To folks on lab tours: here is more detail on what happens behind-the-scenes
…To the scientist at NOAA: can we collaborate on this project?
…To the grant committee: here is this prototype of what I would do with the money
…To the prospective intern: this is what working with me would be like, are we a good fit?
Plenty of files in the AIC office are interesting too. Documents on the history of the organization. Discussions and reports about difficult issues like certification. Letters to AIC. Writings from the Kecks. Do you have to go to Delaware to read the AIC oral history project? I would love to see pdf postings of all the past conference brochures!
My own blog doesn’t even need to generate new material…I just need to clean up and post the useful stuff that’s already on my hard drive. I think AIC could do the same. And so could you. If you look at my blog it is probably obvious that what I want is a real webpage, but I can’t be bothered with learning how to set it up. In fact, I’m pretty bad with technology in general. If you see a hyperlink (is that the right word?) in this posting, it is because the folks at the IMA know how to make it work, not me. But a weblog is an easy place to dump my content for everyone to use, and best of all, it has a comment section to allow collaboration.
So, what do you think?