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.