Conservation training and experience
A relatively recent comment I saw online is that aspiring conservators-to-be are still finding very high bars and accessibility issues when it comes to entering the profession. I began my journey into conservation 10 years ago, and it still seems the same. The very strange expectation that “to become a conservator, you need to have had experience as a conservator,” while defensible from a standards perspective, is also completely illogical from a reality perspective. Why is conservation training so hard to get?
It felt like a cut-throat competitive approach to getting those few, coveted places in conservation programmes around the world and because I didn’t decide to be a conservator when I was 13 years old and got internships in local museums because that’s not how my country works, I might have missed that boat.
And the worst thing is that for all that competition, if/when you get out, there is always the chance you might not even get a job that pays you back for your sacrifices - and some of us have to make more sacrifices than others.
My personal journey to become a conservator was, luckily, not entirely like that. I chose to go into conservation after I had already finished a BA in anthropology. I had never considered conservation before that. I had never volunteered in a museum. I just happened to have had several courses in chemistry and anthropology to be able to fill the requirements for an MA application. I applied to a program abroad and I was able to get in. In fact, I actually had to get in twice because I was waitlisted the first time around, and by the time I was happily accepted, the visa situation would have taken too long for me to get there in time for the start of the school year, so, with a lot of sadness, I had to withdraw and just try again the next year and hope for the best.
Luckily for me, it worked the second time around without a waitlist, and I was able to get my degree. However, until I was accepted the second time, that feeling that maybe I was too late was constant. Years later, I still get butterflies in my stomach thinking about what would have happened if I hadn’t got in.
There were a number of programmes I didn’t even bother applying for because I knew I wouldn’t be able to compete (or afford them).
My applicant peers, who by this time were a few years younger than me, already seemed to have museum internship experiences that amounted to a number of years! I wondered how this was even possible? The idea that in order to get into a programme that taught me something, I already had to be well-steeped into that something (and even have a portfolio in some cases!) struck me as absurd. Were they mainly there to rubber stamp us and give out a certification?
When I finally got to my programme and met the cohort who have now become a group of very good friends, I noticed that, just like me, they were mostly new to conservation, and this was a relief. I had a fantastic two years of learning things I’d never even heard of before, sharing knowledge with fellow students and even had my very first ever serious internship experience in conservation. This allowed me to move on after my degree and get a conservation job in my own country where I have managed to apply all things learned and even teach some conservation basics to colleagues from other fields. I am happy to say that I was able to overcome the barriers I saw looming ahead - in great part because I am lucky in my family and situation.
That’s my story, and I wonder if yours is similar or completely different. I am very grateful that I was able to join a programme and that I got that official degree from a recognised university - which was absolutely necessary for me to be where I am today.
However, I still wonder about those of us who can’t do that. Either because of money, geography, personal reasons, etc., there are significant barriers to overcome. I can’t advocate for an online conservation degree by anything other than a recognised institution. I also won’t presume to tell programmes how to run their application processes.
What I can do myself is address one of the issues that stuck with me while I waited to see if I would be able to get a degree: the knowledge and experience gap between applicants.
Conservation public outreach, offer and possibilities
Various institutions and individuals are doing fantastic work with conservation outreach for the general public. There are YouTube channels, social media accounts, free webinars, etc. These are all great and serve as a good way for interested people at various levels to dip their feet into conservation. Here are some examples of this:
- The Conservation Starter on YouTube
- The YouTube page of the American Institute of Conservation
- The Getty Conservation Institute YouTube channel
- The Canadian Conservation Institute’s Notes series
- The C Word podcast
- Dr. Mariana di Giacomo’s Twitter account
- The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute “Taking Care” series
However, if you are a person interested in going into conservation and realise you just don’t seem to have the basics to even apply to a programme in the first place, where could you start? There are scholarships and things for pre-programme individuals, but again, these will likely be just as competitive as the programmes themselves, so where does that leave you?
Sometimes we might think that we can’t make a difference, that we need to wait for our professional bodies or organisations to do something about things we need to improve - and they’re definitely trying, but we can still help out - and be rewarded fairly for our efforts.
I should be explicitly clear that I am not trying to encourage the independent, online training of full conservators - this would be dangerous and probably outright unethical. Conservation training, as we all know, requires a lot of hands-on experience guided by the watchful eye of an experienced tutor in a laboratory setting. I personally believe we do still need institutional credibility, education, accreditations, internships, apprenticeships, laboratory experience, etc.
That said, there are many aspects of conservation that can be imparted online without any expectation that students or people interested in pre-programme preparation would attempt anything crazy on their own: ethics, preventive conservation basics, risk assessment, documentation management, community engagement, chemistry, software use, sustainability, budget planning, data science, pest management, etc.
Many of these great courses, however, can be expensive for students - especially for those of us who have to deal with currency conversion rates. So what now?
I would like to encourage you, if you are a trained conservator, to share your knowledge in a freelance setting at a price you consider acceptable for your geographical location and based on your own resources and time - unless, of course, you are contractually bound not to. I specifically co-founded Altminster so that we would have a space to do this. It is all running 100% free for now because our costs are very very low, so it’s possible to do.
Soon, I intend to try to make a loosely structured, low fees, pre-programme style curriculum of courses that someone could study independently and mostly asynchronously in order to prepare themselves for the dive - so that they don’t feel so separated from or disadvantaged in the face of their seemingly already professional peers. You can look at a starting example for Linguistics that already exists on Altminster.
Interested? Send me a message if this is something you would like to do and let’s build something together.
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