Sunday, September 4, 2011

Conservation challenges - 25 years and counting

25 years ago today marks the day that I founded International Conservation Services (ICS).  Well, not quite, in that it was originally called Campbell Conservation before morphing into ICS in 1991.  Back in 1986 a wonderful man called Chick Campbell, who owned and ran the Campbell Group, was prepared to back my hunch that there was an opportunity in the Australian market for a multi-disciplinary conservation company, and the rest, as they say folks, is history.

As I write this, I am in London in the midst of a Council meeting of the International Institute for Conservation, of which I am one of the Vice Presidents.  And it is proving a useful time to reflect both on running a private conservation business over the past 25 years, as well as the challenges of responding to the current key issues in conservation – but more on the latter in a future post.

On the face of it, the journey at ICS has been about how to keep a commercial conservation operation viable.  There have been times when this has been challenging, for all sorts of reasons.  However, one of the enduring challenges has been the conflict between the passion to conserve, and the reality of commercial existence.  Fundamentally, as conservators, we are in this profession to conserve  objects.  And most of us are passionate about that.  Yes, we know that we need to earn a living to survive, but making money doesn’t drive us the way caring for objects does.  The journey at ICS has therefore been about focusing that critical passion we all have for this extraordinarily privileged position we so often find ourselves in, so that our business can at least operate sustainably. 

It has also been about providing an opportunity for more than 100 conservators to develop their skills, ply their profession, and indulge their passion, whilst conserving (we estimate) some 40,000 artworks and objects in that time, thus ensuring their stories can continue to be told to future generations.

What I realise that these 25 years have not been about is a series of ethical dilemmas. The decision not to get involved, for instance, in treating a painting from which a client wanted to remove an unloved sister, or a rare textile which a client wanted to cut up into cushions, has never been hard.  Happily, these have been very rare occurrences. 

Instead, the decisions on how to treat an object have often been technically taxing, but as a result, frequently exhilarating.  I think particularly of Tasmania's Hamilton Inn Sofa, which took us on a fascinating journey to ensure the treatment both respected its history and reflected its uniqueness as a decorative arts object.

So now for the next 25 years, folks! I purposely did not name the company Bickersteth Conservation (not sure that has much of a ring to it anyway!) as I wanted to ensure that what we collectively built could live on past individual careers.  No sign of the passion dulling on my part, but planning for the future will be one of the challenges for the next 25 years.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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