Treatment and Documentation at the AIC Annual Meeting

TSLAC Conservation recently attended the 45th annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC.)  The meeting’s theme, “Treatment 2017: Innovation in Conservation and Collection Care,” was embodied in several sub-themes, including a focus on conservation documentation.  Though documentation may not be the exciting part of treatment, it is an ethical necessity to record how physical intervention may change the nature of a historical artifact to prolong its life.

In her talk, “That Poor Cousin of Treatment: Documentation and Possibilities for Simple Innovation,” Cybele Tom of the Art Institute of Chicago presented a case study in thorough documentation as multiple conservators treated one object over many years.  She found that documentation of past treatment greatly influences current treatment decisions, and she considered detailed documentation as a “love letter to a future conservator.”  For highest accuracy, documentation might include both quantitative, objective measurements and qualitative, journal-style musings on decision making. However, these idealized practices require judicious application.  In a higher-volume, collections-based workflow like TSLAC’s, a different approach is needed.

More representative of TSLAC’s workflow was the talk “Medium Rare: An Innovative Treatment Approach to the Space between Special and General Collections.”  Quinn Ferris of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign discussed issues familiar to many conservators who work with materials that fall somewhere between general collections and special collections.  Documentation presents a special challenge for these materials: it should be careful and methodical, while still promoting quick turnaround.

TSLAC’s solution is to create written documentation for all items using a check-box-based database, which provides a searchable, controlled vocabulary.  Additional descriptive fields allow customization and qualitative musings like those advocated by Ms. Tom.  We pursue photographic documentation only for treatments that are especially invasive or that involve items that are especially unique.  As seen at the AIC meeting, balanced solutions like ours are pursued in other, similar collections.

Conservation Treatment Documentation Databases

Treatment documentation is a major part of conservation.  According to the Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice of the American Institute for Conservation:

“The conservation professional has an obligation to produce and maintain accurate, complete, and permanent records of examination, sampling, scientific investigation, and treatment. When appropriate, the records should be both written and pictorial.”

In 2010 and 2011, TSLAC worked with software developer Terence Bandoian to build a custom database application to streamline the collection and preservation of written and photographic treatment documentation information.  This system is among a variety of current documentation database projects within the conservation field.  While some of these projects occur at the institutional level, others represent multi-institutional and for-profit work.

At the 41st annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation in Indianapolis, IN, conservator Sarah Norris moderated a panel discussion on these documentation databases.  Speakers at this lively and well-attended session included Sarah from TSLAC; Linda Hohneke from the Folger Shakespeare Library; Jay Hoffman from Gallery Systems, Inc; and Mervin Richard from the National Gallery of Art, representing the Mellon Foundation-funded ConservationSpace project.  To learn more about the session and the meeting, please visit AIC’s blog, Conservators Converse.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Thoughts on Outreach and Advocacy

Last week, I attended the 40th annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation, held in Albuquerque, NM.  It’s always good to reconnect with colleagues and with the conservation field at large, and this year was no exception.

The theme for this meeting was “Connecting to Conservation: Outreach and Advocacy,” and much discussion was devoted to social media and blogs like this one.  In an inspiring keynote address, Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, former director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, encouraged conservators to advocate for themselves politically, raising the profile of the profession by demanding improved funding and recognition at the local and especially the national level.  The effectiveness of this plea was its immediacy, encouraging the conservation field to empower itself and advocate for its own needs.

Many other sessions underscored conservation’s advocacy for related causes, such as libraries, museums, the arts, and education.  While online outreach allows the creation of targeted, digital interest groups, the move toward publicly featuring conservation treatment demonstrates the power of first-hand observation.  Professional outreach is equally important; my talk, “Toward an Ontology of Audio Preservation,” generated thoughtful discussion on the topics of authenticity and reformatting at the Electronic Media Group session.

There has been a concerted effort in recent years to bring conservation out of hidden, basement labs and into the public eye.  When carefully balanced against workflow needs, this trend can elevate the profile of the profession and its host institutions alike.  Of course, much of this promotion is driven by fundraising needs within perennially underfunded arts and humanities institutions.  Ideally, our outreach function as conservators is to find ways in which fundraising and educational goals go hand in hand.  That way, libraries, museums, and the conservation field can elevate each other’s profiles together, and development directors and conservators can shake hands and be happy partners.

Call for Sustainable Tips at AIC 40th Annual Meeting

Conservators, please make note of the following opportunity for involvement in the 2012 AIC Annual Meeting in Albuquerque:

The Committee for Sustainable Conservation Practices is putting out a call for tips to present at our lunch session Wednesday, May 9 at AIC 40th Annual Meeting. The 2 hour lunch session, Linking the Environment and Heritage Conservation: Presentations, Tips, and Discussions, will include 2 presentations from environmentalists from  non-heritage conservation fields who will discuss materials and their effect on the environment, followed by a 1 hour tips session and a 20 minute panel discussion.

Conservators will have 10 minutes each to present tips on how they are working in a more sustainable fashion. We encourage discussions concerning: materials for treatment and storage regarding their degradation and the environmental ramifications; materials no longer in use due to their environmental impact, and the materials that replace them; treatments designed for new environmental parameters; reduction and reuse of materials considered for long term storage; lighting, including new approaches; environmental control; new approaches to loans, including travel, packing and transportation; and cost savings from sustainable practices.

Tips will be followed by a discussion session led by a panel of environmental specialists and cultural heritage conservators who have focused on related topics.

To present a 10 minute tip, please submit a proposal to CSCP by December 20, 2011 to

Thoughts on Conservation after the AIC 2011 Meeting

I just returned from the 39th annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation, which took place in Philadelphia June 1 – 3.  I’m always surprised by the size of the AIC meeting.  Conservation is a relatively small field that’s difficult to get into.  Arts and humanities budgets are shrinking, especially in the public sector.  And many conservators aren’t reliably funded for travel.  Given all this, I often wonder: “Where do all these people at AIC come from?”

One reason for the strong attendance at AIC must be the pervasive drive toward self-education among conservators.  It shouldn’t be any surprise that people drawn to work in libraries, archives, and museums would value lifelong learning.  But I think there’s a healthy streak of humility and anxiety here, too: no single person can know all things about all materials, and the ever-present risk of damaging a historical artifact provides strong motivation to keep learning and stay humble.  The composite historical /craft-based /scientific nature of the conservation field was a strong component of the panel discussion about training programs held on June 2 and reported upon in the new AIC blog, among other places.  My feeling is that the AIC annual meeting is so well attended for the same reason that discussions about training are so difficult: because we all realize no one set of experiences yields the perfect conservator. 

Another reason so many people go to AIC may be the fact that during the rest of the year, many of us practice in relative isolation.  Those who aren’t lab singletons, either in private practice or within an institution, often work within very small departmental groups.  The need for learning doesn’t always mesh well with this style of practice, and Parks Library Preservation noted that the educational benefits of community are likely one reason behind the growth in conservation blogs.  Isolation is a real challenge in a semi-academic field like conservation, and with so much to learn, nobody wants to waste time reinventing wheels.  This is true in designing workflow, in creating documentation, in conducting research, and in the most practical aspects of treatment.  (For instance, I’m certain it wouldn’t take even a very clever person to refine my method of emptying oversize mylar washing trays, which is really a moderately controlled exercise in spilling water on the floor.)

Overall, I think the need for knowledge combined with frequent isolation creates a strong desire for a professional community.  And while the digital world offers some powerful tools toward this end, still nothing replaces in-person learning and face-to-face conversation.  Why do people invest so much time and money to attend AIC every year?  Because the investment is worth it.