Photo by Cottonbro on Pexels.
I began this year with a small post about why I want to try to make conservation public. If you haven’t read it and feel like having a look, you can do so here.
If you don’t feel like reading it, which is totally legit, the gist of the article is that nobody knows who we are. Conservation is not a job, it’s not something that ought to be paid for, conservators are referred to as conservationists (like Greta and David Attenborough) or, if they go by the word restorers, people think they work in restaurants. In other words, it’s a bit of a PR disaster.
Turns out I’m not the only one who seems to feel this way, as I got a ton of unexpected engagement from various colleagues around the world. If you’d like to read something more official, you can look at the Institute of Conservation (UK) Chief Executive’s blog here where she touches upon the same topic as she talks about the ICON strategy for the next 2o years.
So it’s a thing. Maybe conservators (we) don’t get out much, and we apparently don’t talk as much as others about our jobs. Or at least not enough to make it into public knowledge beyond our friends and families.
The Facebook Page/Group
For a good while, and given the positive feedback encountered, I considered running a Facebook page aimed at the general public. I even had the offer of a very kind and generous colleague in the States who said they would be happy to help me run the page, but that given their experiences, it would be very important to have page rules about what the page was and was not for. So I started writing those down too in a fancy Google doc.
One of the big rules for what the Facebook page would not be for was answering questions about DIY conservation.
Yeah, I thought - obviously! All trained conservators know (or at least are expected to know) it’s considered unethical to give that kind of information or encouragement to amateur individuals because of the obvious potential for insane damage that can entail.
Then real life got busy, and I had to leave the Facebook idea in the backburner for a bit because Facebook is a big commitment for someone with no personal Facebook presence and a considerable social media platform to maintain as a fifth side gig.
So then, I decided to pause the big Facebook monster for a bit and make a little incursion into Reddit and see what is going on over there. It sounded like it would be Twitter-style level commitment, so why not? Facebook could wait a bit for now.
I opened an account by the same name as my Twitter one, and started trying to figure out what was going on. Reddit mystifies me. I read a bunch of blogs and articles and rules and found out Reddit is nothing like Twitter. If I have understood correctly, where Twitter can encourage people to be troll-y and mean and spammy and do intense marketing for personal projects, Reddit is the complete opposite.
- If you’re mean, you’re out.
- If you self promote or attempt to market beyond the absolute minimum and only contextually-appropriate scenarios, you’re out.
- If your content is not verifiable or solid, you can be out.
- If you don’t follow the subreddit specific rules, you can be out.
- If the moderators in the subreddit (like a Fb group) you hang out in and post on thinks you’re being any of these things, you’re out.
Okaaaaay! That wasn’t scary at all. I thought I’d continue taking a look and do my best not to break any rules. All subreddits will have different rules, you know? It’s important to read them too or you might get banned.
What I found
I looked for subreddits (think of them as group forums) that involved conservation. Not very many, but they were there, and they seemed to have a fair number of trained conservators in them - not thousands (when are we ever in the thousands, eh?), but a few hundred here or there.
And one of the debates/complaints revolved around this:
This subreddit is full of random people asking for advice on how to fix their things. Bother.
And of course this doesn’t happen just on the internet. I remember conferences where this topic was talked about for a while with passionate arguments on both sides.
Some arguments I have heard for and against, in and out of Reddit
- We should give them basic information so they don’t mess it up too bad.
- If we don’t tell them stuff, they’ll go to someone else who will tell them something worse. This also applies to the “If I don’t do the job, someone else will botch it up” version.
- We are being extremely negative and just frustrating people who will ignore us anyway.
Not all objects are a big deal. You can probably tell them how to fix their Disney-bought Mickey Mouse mug from 1995 they broke because they love it. Why can’t they do that? Why are we trying to control all home fixes at all levels?
- This is absurd and unethical. You tell them to get a conservator and be done with it. They’re not prepared. This is not a hobby. It’s a complicated career. They can’t and shouldn’t intervene.
- These people should stop coming here (Reddit/Facebook/etc.) to ask for this kind of advice. You don’t ask for advice on surgical procedures on Google so you can do them yourself, do you?
Can I/we find a positive solution?
Generally speaking, I can agree with literally all of the above, both for and against. I am not criticising the above points. I do think there are very valid points on both sides of the argument, so I would like to consider a middle ground. Here are some points I am making for myself. Let me be absolutely clear that I am not targetting anyone else but me in these constructive criticisms.
- Patience is a virtue. Breathe a lot. Avoid shutting people down. There is a reason why conservators have a “reputation” for being the nay sayers in the museum world. We have gone through the training and seen or read or heard about so much stuff go wrong that we like to err on the side of caution (which makes sense), and this bleeds into our advice - which, when it comes to amateurs can turn into a jaded:
Don’t even try. Take it to a professional. Stop asking. Go away. It’s complicated. You are annoying me, and I bet you can tell too by how I worded my response.
Don’t just tell people that the reason of my denial is because #chemistry. That probably doesn’t mean anything to most of them. It’s just an abstract concept about how the world works, just like “science”. As we ourselves constantly point out, they are not trained in the subject, so why do we expect a basic gloss-over explanation to convince them of anything?
- Go beyond the medical analogy. Yes, we like the medical analogy. Guilty as charged. It makes sense a lot of the time, but objects are not people and not all objects were created the same - would you treat an object that is about to be deaccessioned the same way as the Picasso in your collection? No. So why do you expect a person with a home collection to be as caring about something as we are about a general museum object? Would you allow your conservation intern to practice on the Picasso or the about-to-be-deaccessioned object? Also, you know when we say “Oh you wouldn’t take Google medical advice for a disease cure, would you?” - Yes, well, maaaaaybe we could say that before 2020, but COVID has proven a lot of people literally would. Awkward. And guess what? The same thing happened with chloride injecting people as when people mess up their objects: Doctors and “other smart people” told them they were being stupid and cut it out and go find a professional, while randos were telling them it totally worked for them and try it. So they tried it because being told you’re (legitimately) inadequate doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. Is that cool? No. Were the Dr. and “smart people” correct? Absolutely. Did their advice stop the testers from dying or at least ending up in the hospital? Sadly, no. So am I going to whinge and keep being the person who knows what they’re talking about without actual regard to the success of my delivery? Hopefully not, although I’ll be honest with you, I might still slip and do it some days if it’s a bad day because it’s not an easy thing to do when the same questions never stop.
I wish I were joking. We said people wouldn’t look for DIY surgical procedures online, would they?! Well, apparently they would… and they would find a WikiHow AND a YouTube video - which is animated, but as terrifying as you can imagine because you do NOT want to go trekking with someone who has watched that and thinks they will save your life by stabbing you in the neck with a pen if you choke on your trail mix.
- Maybe try a legal analogy? If you get into a serious legal matter where you will have to appear in court or something, it would be a terrible idea to go on social media and ask a lawyer or “someone who’s done this before” to tell you what to do so you can do it yourself to avoid paying someone’s fees. If you attempted to pull this off on your own with Google advice, you’d most likely really regret it (maybe from jail). While I’m quite sure no lawyer ought to be giving you step-by-step instructions on what to do, and the natural advice would be “find a lawyer who specialises in this and get them to sort it out for you,” that does not mean they could not point out some of the potential issues with your case and try to lead you towards the advice you need so you don’t end up listening to the wrong kind of advice. If you’re a lawyer and you think this doesn’t work at all bc of legal liabilities, please let me know because this analogy breaks down haha.
In defense of the asker
I know DIY conservation questions may have started to feel like some sort of offensive comment for some conservators. Not all, of course. There are plenty of us who are lovely and friendly. But sometimes, it just puts us on edge, and it’s understandable. We’ve all been there and after the 100th time, it’s easy to get snappy. Let me address this the following way:
We have a phrase in Spanish that says: “La vaca no se acuerda cuando fue ternera.” It literally means “The cow doesn’t remember [the time when] she used to be a calf.” It refers to those situations when someone who is now in a different position in life seems to forget how they used to be before they reached their current position. So here’s a question for us, as professional conservators:
Remember the past - it could be recent or a looong time ago. Before you became a conservator, maybe even before you knew the profession existed, did you know non-conservators were “not supposed” to try to fix things? Did you know that there was a nuanced border of potential ethical malpractice if conservators gave you advice?
I will be honest with you. Not me! It never once, not in my wildest dreams, occur to me. Until I did my training, I had never considered that I should not try to fix something that broke in my house. Or that I should not try to clean something that was dirty. (Remember the first time they told you all dirt was not dirt?) And let’s remember again, conservation has a communication problem. A lot of people don’t know we are here. They don’t necessarily know this is a legit job with university degrees that goes beyond being the local knick-knacker repairer person thing.
So what right do we have to be angry at them when they ask about how to fix something? Why do we expect them to know how things work? Is this common knowledge? Of course it isn’t, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to just know this. If anything, it’s our own fault they don’t know this - because we haven’t communicated properly.
Let’s consider this… Doesn’t their question imply care? Would they even ask for advice if they didn’t care how their results turned out?
How do you feel about askers now? I certainly had a rethink.
On the “amateur” condition
I was watching a documentary on fungi the other day. Never thought I’d say that, but there it is. I didn’t have time to finish it, so I can’t give you an overall score on it, but there was one thing someone said that stuck with me: All those 19th century men and women who went out and became the founders of every other academic discipline today? Guess what? They were amateurs. Yes, they were remarkable amateurs, but amateurs still. And many of them were shot down by the academics of their time. I’m not implying that doglover1234 asking you about the mould spots on their grandfather’s painting on Reddit is the next Plenderleith in the making, but let’s try to exploit an educational opportunity instead of just saying no. What if they really could have become the next Plenderleith and you just smote down their interest? Unlikely, but we can’t know, I guess.
Do you want to be involved?
Basically, I’m going to try a little experiment. Maybe you will decide to join me, in which case, let me know! It’ll be great if we can make a little conservation team that does not, in fact, run away from “How do I…” questions!
I will go on Reddit every now and then and look at these questions about “Oh there’s a stain in this stone bust thing that my grandmother left me. Can I use stone cleaner on it?”
Whenever possible, I will respond and try to stick to the following rules:
- Avoid just saying “No. It’s complicated” and “go find a professional.” - Although, let’s face it, that will probably be the conclusion of the post - just not phrased like that.
- Explain why it’s complicated. No need to start drawing benzene rings at them, just try to do it in a friendly Magic Schoolbus manner that is educational and, above all, not condescending. This can be hard because things can be read in oh so many ways and imparting information can always come off condescending.
- Give DIY preventive conservation advice and explain it.
- Explain what could go wrong, how and why if they proceed with their suggestion.
- Clarify that, as a conservator following the ethical guidelines of my professional bodies, I am not in any way endorsing the treatment of a valued object by a non professional.
- Give people reputable links they can use in their research such as the CCI Notes or the various conservation YouTube channels for ICON, ICOM, Getty, etc. while at the same time telling them to avoid general DIY or homemade recipe solutions.
- Don’t go on social media to respond to people if I’m in an irritable mood or having a bad day.
I guess the points I will be trying to make will have to do with clarifying why we think something is complicated instead of repeatedly stating the fact that it is - which only weakens the argument over time. If I’m lucky, the person considering the DIY will re-think their choices, take some preventive measures, learn something new from a reputable source and potentially take the object to a professional - thus supporting the freelance conservation industry. If I’m not lucky, I’m not any worse off for trying - except maybe for my time, but it’s a fee I’m willing to pay in this journey.
The Reddit or Facebook group or wherever answers you send are not a blog or an article or a paper that someone has to go and find. The person you are answering will read you if only because you are directly replying to them. You are 100% getting their attention - regardless of whether they decide to agree or not, do as you say or not.
That person’s ultimate choice will be their own and beyond our control, but we can take each question as a little “Ask a Conservator” opportunity that someone is actively giving us without having to run a Zoom event which we then have to attempt to promote to like the ultimately 30 people who will sign up, half of whom won’t even show. You know how that works.
We can’t control the questions, but we can certainly improve on our answers.
May the Force be with me and with all of you who choose to join me in this endeavour.
If you liked this post, you can follow me on Twitter where I’ll be posting more content on conservation tidbits and how to improve your collections at home.