Monday, May 3, 2010

Telling stories by conservation

I have long been an advocate of the power of story telling in both justifying the process of conservation and also in achieving engagement with wider audiences. Conservation per se just to extend an artwork or object’s life in perpetuity may be ethically the right thing to do, but it is rarely going to grab the attention of funding bodies or the public.

Driven by the very real concerns of reducing support for conservation training (both the Textile Conservation Centre and the V&A/Royal College of Arts in the UK closed last year), the International Institute for Conservation ran another in its’ successful series of dialogues in January 2010 entitled ‘Conservation in Crisis – communicating the value of what we do’. This has just been posted on the IIC website. I must admit to some bias on the value of these dialogues as I am Vice President of IIC, and am strongly supportive of the Institute taking a more active advocacy role.

And what comes out clearly from the dialogue is that storytelling is a significant key to engaging a wider audience, and one that conservators continue to be poor at exploiting. Whilst a range of programs providing public access to conservation, including opening up labs to guided tours and having conservation treatments carried out in public galleries, have had some success, as soon as conservators commit themselves to paper, they become dead boring to anyone but other conservators (and let it be honestly said, often to them as well). And this is generally because they focus on the treatment rather than the story behind the object that is revealed.

There is a great example of this given by one of the dialogue participants about a cross that was conserved in Venice. The conservators involved when explaining their work talked at length about the details of the treatment undertaken, yet failed to mention that what was really interesting about the cross is that for two hundred years it was carried before condemned prisoners on their procession to the scaffold, i.e. it was one of the last things such people saw on earth.

I have just attended a meeting of the International Polar Heritage Committee in Punta Arenas, Chile, and one of the speakers was bewailing the focus on the Heroic era and the explorers of the early Twentieth Century, at the expense of the conservation of the heritage of the early nineteenth century whalers and sealers in Antarctica. The simple explanation is that the story telling around the explorers has been much more successfully told than that of the whalers and sealers, and as a result the funds have flowed for conservation work for the former. Admittedly it helps having some substantial huts and their 15,000 artifacts as compared to a few difficult to discern archaeological remains on which to hang them

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