Why conservation needs to go public

Photo by Monika Kozub on Unsplash

My invisible career

I can't speak for conservators all over the world, but at least where I live, everyone thinks or assumes I must be an archaeologist. I work with collections? I stick things together? Ah. Archaeologist. Obviously.

If I don't talk about collections at all but just say I'm a conservator when asked about what I do, the next question I generally receive tends to relate to plastics, oceans, the Amazon jungle and recycling.

One colleague once told me she said she did restoration work and was then asked what part of the restaurant she liked best: front desk, kitchen or the bar? Something along those lines. To be fair, the word "restauración" in Spanish, can be used for both, but it makes for a good story where we lost out to a more famous line of work.

But perhaps the most common response to "I'm a conservator" generally tends to be an initial OH! followed by sudden frozen face of either confusion or blankness and then:

........... what's that?

The great thing is that when I finally explain or clarify, the responses tends to be very encouraging.

  • That's so interesting! I didn't know that existed! (Yes! I exist!)
  • Your work must be fascinating. (Yes, it is!)
  • That sounds really difficult. You must be very smart (Yes, it can be. Shucks, how kind of you!)

While this general experience is common and I'm used to people having no idea what I'm talking about, it underscores a serious problem.

What if people didn't know engineers existed and just assumed everyone was an architect?
Or... if nobody knew programmers existed and assumed everyone is an IT support person?
What would that mean for the profession?
What would that mean for the professional?
What would that mean for the job that requires that professional?
And by extension, what would that mean for the results obtained?

If almost nobody knows you exist, what you do, why you're important, why they should pay you to do anything, then why should anyone believe that someone else can't just do what you do as a side gig? I'm sure some of you will be able to relate to this.

Your job is not a real job. It's something someone else with another career can do just as well, right? The results should be the same, right? I'm not going to answer these hypothetical questions but leave you with the following anecdote (one among many):

A few days ago, I went onto a much-loved museum website. I know their website. I've looked at it several times over the years as I return for various things. And I noticed something new and terribly sad. Their page about the Museum team is now composed exclusively of senior management, curators, trustees. The conservation team is gone. The mounting technicians are gone. Collections and registration teams are not there either. The little blog posts about conservation treatment of objects are no more. It makes me worry that the actual people are gone. Are the jobs gone away too? Who takes care of the collections now? Do we care? Are we even aware that there's something to care about?

Museums during a pandemic

During the earlier months of the pandemic, the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO) ran a survey with nearly 1,000 survey responses collected between 24 March and 30 April 2020 from museums in 48 countries, the majority from Europe. The final results were presented in early May 2020.

The big museums, such as the Rijksmuseum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, the Stedelijk Museum lose between 100.000 Euro and 600.000 Euro per week. Museums in touristic regions are looking at an exceptional income loss of 75-80% due to the complete halt of tourism and the potential continuation of restrictions into the summer period. (NEMO survey, p.7)

A bigger report was conducted by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). It analysed almost 1,600 responses from museums and museum professionals in 107 countries, across five continents, which were collected between 7 April and 7 May. They report that:

...almost all museums around the world will reduce their activities because of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly one third of them will reduce staff, and more than one tenth may be forced to close permanently. 82,6 % of the respondents anticipate that museum programmes will have to be reduced and 29,8 % expect that the number of staff will have to be reduced. 12,8 % of participants fear that their museum might close. (ICOM survey, p.2)

Artifact conservation during the pandemic
Extracted from ICOM survey, p.14

In relation to the conservation of museum collections, responses are slightly more varied. The maintenance of stable environmental conditions is a greater source of concern than other factors, with more than 18% of respondents reporting that their systems are not adequate to guarantee object conservation. The structural integrity of buildings and other systems (electrical, fire-fighting, etc.) are perceived as a smaller risk, with 14% and 12% of participants respectively worrying that the systems may not be adequate. (ICOM survey, p.15)

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) did not fall behind and also ran a survey on the impact of the pandemic in American museums in October 2020. Here are two of the more salient points for US museums as reported in November 2020:

Over half (52%) of museums have six months or less of operating reserves; 82% have twelve months or less of operating reserves. (AAM survey)

On average, respondents anticipated losing approximately 35% of the museum’s budgeted operating income in 2020 and are anticipating losing an additional 28% of normal operating income in 2021. (AAM survey)

More specifically, the Institute of Conservation (ICON, UK) ran a small survey for conservators, where

Over 90% of respondents reported loss or postponement of work and 70% of respondents said that their monthly income had decreased. (ICON survey, p.7)

Looks grim, how will this help?

Specifically, I can't say I know for sure how me having an occasional blog and running conservation courses for non-professionals in my free time is going to help such a huge issue. I'm not (yet?) expecting to become a conservation crusader.

However, I understand that there is a problem and I intend to address it slowly and steadily.

Conservation is not an island. Or rather... it is now. But it shouldn't be.
Do you agree?

I get the feeling that regardless of where we live, cultural heritage, and often education, tend to be found at the lower end of budget lists. Imagine that on top of that, within cultural heritage itself, conservation is pretty low as well.

Perhaps that is our own fault. We conservators are not famous for being into outreach. In true introvert fashion, some of us even seem to prefer objects over people.

BUT... if we can slowly bring conservation into the light, trickle it into general knowledge, diffuse it into people's homes and insert it into everyday language, then... well! Who knows what could happen? Maybe we can go from invisible, through a hazy glitter state, to a solid, visible form.

After all, the internet is a powerful tool. It has proven many times over since its inception that it can change the world. So maybe we can change the world in our own way, for the sake of our global and personal heritages.

Will you join me in this journey? Follow me on Twitter to help me share conservation topics with everyone.


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