Monday, August 31, 2009

Conservation research – where’s it all heading?

I am the joint editor of the Australian Institute for Conservation of Cultural Material’s (AICCM) Newsletter, a quarterly publication which I see as basically about ensuring the conservation profession in Australia stays connected. It’s hard work at times as no one ever volunteers any feedback, so one has to guess whether the content is what people are after. But one regular feature I particularly enjoy is an interview that I undertake with a conservator. I tend to choose someone who has trained or worked outside Australia as I believe it gives them a particular perspective on the Australian scene, which I am always keen to ensure is unpacked in the interview.

For the next edition I have interviewed Michael Marendy. Michael is a rare breed in Australia, holding a PhD (from Griffith University) in the history of costume collecting (and its conservation) in Brisbane. Talking to Michael got me thinking about where else you could undertake a doctorate in materials conservation. I discovered that the University of Melbourne would entertain the idea, and has one graduate undertaking one, but that in the entire US only one conservation course ( at the University of Delaware) offers a PhD, and that is restricted to a maximum of 3 a year. Research in conservation is not very popular it would seem at present. But then it may be because conservation courses themselves both at undergraduate and graduate level are also under threat. London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the Royal College of Art have confirmed plans to close their joint post-graduate conservation training program. This comes not long after the University of Southampton announced the closure of the Textile Conser­vation Centre (TCC).

And to add to the malaise, I participated in a depressing panel discussion with the AICCM NSW branch last week . We were meant to be talking about key issues in conservation at present ( I was busy exhorting the room to get behind serious study and engagement with the issues of relaxing environmental standards and reducing energy use in museums and galleries) , but the evening turned out to be a good old whinge about how little traction conservators have in their institutions on the big decisions. I heard the same refrain when I started in conservation 25 years ago, except that at the time we were on the ascendant and it was all about how we get engaged. Now unfortunately the profession seems to be on the descendant. Funding cuts, lack of resources, and only objects for exhibition display being conserved are all making working in institutions pretty tedious at present. Neither the Powerhouse or the Art Gallery of NSW even have heads of conservation at present, i.e. the job positions have been abolished.

Where to from here? My view is that this is all about active engagement - getting conservators to force dialogue around the issues they know something about, including those that are museum wide such as reducing energy costs whilst still ensuring the preservation of collections. By doing so they can get back into mainstream thinking at museums, and prove they are as vital a part as any of the core functions. Having a component of the profession that is actively engaged in research is going to help our cause no end.

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